Background to the Birmingham Inquests
Inquests were opened into 20 of those who died in the Birmingham pub bombings by the then Coroner, George Billington, on 28 November 1974, and in the case of James Craig, on 11 December 1974. The Inquests were adjourned under Section 20(1) of the Coroners Amendment Act 1926 as a result of a parallel criminal investigation and subsequent criminal charges by West Midlands Police and the Crown Prosecution Service.
On 15 August 1975, six men were convicted of 21 counts of murder in relation to the Birmingham pub bombings. At the conclusion of the criminal proceedings in August 1975, the Coroner did not resume the Inquests – which was in accordance with Sections 20(2) and (4) of the 1926 Act.
Subsequently, the convictions of the six men, who became known as the Birmingham Six were held to be unsafe and unsatisfactory by the Court of Appeal, in a judgement dated 27 March 1991.
In September 2015, relatives for some of those who died in the bombings made an application to HM Senior Coroner for Birmingham and Solihull, for the coronial investigation, that was adjourned in 1975, to be resumed. On 1 June 2016, HM Senior Coroner ruled that there was sufficient evidence on the issue of whether the State had advance notice of the pub bombings for the Inquests to be reopened.
His Honour Sir Peter Thornton QC was appointed by the Lord Chief Justice on 13 October 2016, pursuant to section 41 and schedule 10 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, as the nominated judge to sit as the Coroner for the inquests. The inquests are formally called Birmingham Inquests (1974).
When will the Birmingham Inquests start?
A number of pre-inquest review hearings have now taken place. The pre-inquest hearings allow Sir Peter to consider legal and administrative issues to progress the Inquests. On 3 July 2017, Sir Peter handed down a ruling on the scope of the Inquests following submissions that were made to him at pre-inquest hearings. A copy of that ruling on scope is available on the website. That ruling on scope was challenged by a judicial review to the High Court that took place in December 2017. A date for the start of the Inquests is yet to be set.
Where are the hearings being held?
The hearings will take place at the Birmingham Family and Civil Justice Centre, 33 Bull Street, Birmingham B4 6DS.
Will there be a jury for the Birmingham Inquests?
Yes. A coroner has a duty to summons a jury in certain cases. Broadly, these are where a person dies in custody, where the death was due to the act or omission of a police officer or the death was caused by a notifiable accident, poisoning or disease. A coroner also has discretion to hold an inquest with a jury if he thinks there is sufficient reason to do so. Sir Peter has directed that the these Inquests should be held with a jury.
Will the media have access to the Birmingham Inquests (1974)?
Yes. Media will have access and will be able to report on the Birmingham Inquests. However, space in the courtroom is limited and priority will always be given to Interested Persons. Arrangements have been made to provide greater press and public access to proceedings through the provision of a court annex with audio and visual links to the courtroom.
Those attending the inquests should note that the courtroom is subject to the same restrictions as would apply to normal court proceedings. You may tweet and use laptops silently, but this is a jury inquest so you must not take any photographs in court or in the court building. It is a criminal offence to take any photograph of a juror, witness or the coroner anywhere in the court building or within the precincts of the building.
When the court is sitting, the use of other communications or recording equipment, cameras and personal stereos is strictly prohibited.
For further information please see Chief Coroner Guidance No. 25 – Coroners and the media.
Will members of the public have access to the Birmingham Inquests?
Yes. The number of Interested Persons in these proceedings means that seating in the court room is limited and priority is given to those participating in the Inquests. Arrangements have therefore been made to provide public access to the proceedings through the provision of a court annex with audio and visual links to the courtroom.
Will transcripts of proceedings and evidence made public?
Transcripts of evidence heard in the presence of the jury will be published on this website together with, wherever possible, the evidence that has been seen and heard during the course of the Inquests.
A coroner is an independent judicial office holder who acts to investigate the cause and circumstances of violent or unnatural deaths, or sudden deaths of an unknown cause.
The work of coroners is overseen by the High Court of England and Wales and the Chief Coroner.
In particularly sensitive, high profile, exceptional or extensive cases (for example where there are multiple deaths) a judge may be appointed to oversee the inquests, as with the Birmingham Inquests (1974).
His Honour Sir Peter Thornton QC is the former Chief Coroner of England and Wales. He previously oversaw the high-profile inquest into the death of newspaper vendor Ian Tomlinson, who died in London after being struck by a police officer during protests at the G20 summit in 2009.
General information on Inquests
What is the purpose of an Inquest?
An inquest is a process for investigating the factual circumstances of a death. It is a fact-finding inquiry to find the answers to:
● who the deceased was;
● when and where the death occurred;
● how the deceased came by his or her death; and
● particulars required by the Registration Acts to be registered concerning the death.
The proceedings and evidence are aimed only at determining the answers to these questions. Expressions of opinion on any other matter – for example, civil liability or criminal liability of a named individual – are not permitted.
Who can be called to give evidence to an Inquest?
A coroner is responsible for deciding who should give evidence to the inquests; where appropriate, he will take the views of the Interested Persons in advance. A witness may be called to give evidence if they can provide material and relevant information on the issues which fall to be considered. A coroner has the power to compel witnesses to appear if that becomes necessary.
Can witnesses be compelled to attend or provide evidence for an Inquest?
A coroner can, pursuant to schedule 5 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 require a witness to attend court if they are in the jurisdiction, in England and Wales, and are given proper notice.
What are the possible outcomes in an Inquest?
After hearing the evidence at an inquest into a death, a coroner or jury (if there is one) must make certain determinations and findings (see section 10 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 and rule 34 of the Coroners (Inquests) Rules 2013). A determination is on the matters to be ascertained by the inquest (the identity of the deceased and where, when and how they came by their death). The findings are the details required for registration purposes. The outcome of an inquest is recorded on a Record of Inquest.
In respect of the question ‘how’ the deceased came by his or her death, the possible short-form conclusions which are available to a coroner or jury may include the following:
● Accident or misadventure;
● Lawful / unlawful killing;
● Natural causes; or
● Open (where the evidence did not fully or further disclose the means whereby the cause of death arose).
These would be recorded in box 4 of the Record of Inquest. As an alternative, or in addition to one of the above ‘short-form’ conclusions a coroner or jury may make a brief narrative conclusion.
Further details about the outcome of an inquest, including law sheets and guidance, can be found on the website of the Office of the Chief Coroner – https://www.judiciary.gov.uk/related-offices-and-bodies/office-chief-coroner/
Report to Prevent Future Deaths
Where a coroner has conducted an Inquest, and anything revealed gives rise to concern that circumstances creating a risk of other deaths will occur or continue to exist, then the coroner must report the matter to a person who the coroner believes may have power to take such action. Examples of this might be reporting matters to a police force, the Crown Prosecution Service or the Health and Safety Executive (this list is not exhaustive). A person or organisation to whom a coroner makes such a report must give the coroner a written response to it within 56 days, or longer if permitted by the coroner.
What is an Interested Person?
An Interested Person is defined in section 47 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. A coroner may designate an Interested Person (often shortened to ‘IP’) if they meet the legal test. Examples of an Interested Person are a parent, spouse or sibling of a deceased person, the beneficiary of a life insurance policy held by the deceased person or a Chief Constable where the death involves a homicide offence.
An Interested Person is entitled to participate in the inquest. They will receive disclosure of relevant materials from the coroner, they may make legal submissions and are permitted to ask questions of witnesses called to give evidence.
What is the role of an inquest’s legal team?
A solicitor to an inquest has a varied role, including:
● helping a coroner to conduct his investigation;
● obtaining evidence;
● overseeing disclosure to Interested Persons;
● instructing counsel to an inquest; and
● liaising with witnesses, Interested Persons and their legal representatives.
The role of counsel to an inquest can include:
● presenting evidence;
● questioning witnesses; and
● making legal submissions to assist the coroner.