It's the sizzling summer of 2003. Two days after his traumatic appearance before the Foreign Affairs Committee, weapons inspector David Kelly is found dead on Harrowdown Hill. The coroner begins his inquest, but on 24 July Lord Hutton takes over as the inquest is subsumed into an inquiry.
Seemed all very right and proper, except that an Inquiry does not have the necessary "teeth" (subpoena of witnesses, statements taken on oath, jury) to take the place of an inquest, so cannot prove suicide beyond reasonable doubt as the law requires. And just a moment, if the English law lord is now at the helm, what's this......?
Unknown to Hutton, coroner Nicholas Gardiner seems reluctant to relinquish the reins. Bizarrely, during August 2003, despite Lord Hutton being officially in charge, Gardiner continues taking evidence.....
1. 18 days after Lord Hutton receives confirmation that he head up an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding Dr Kelly's death, Gardiner drops in to the Home Office's 'Department of Constitutional Affairs' - on the spur of the moment while in London, he claims.
2. 3 days later Gardiner meets the two forensic scientists appointed to the case.
3. 4 days after that, long before Hutton hears evidence on the manner and cause of Dr Kelly's death, he has the registrar issue a full death certificate.
In a recent letter to LibDem MP Norman Baker, Lord Hutton claims he had no knowledge of the coroner's actions, and conducted his inquiry unaware that on 14 August Nicholas Gardiner met forensic toxicologist Richard Allan and forensic pathologist Nicholas Hunt to establish Dr Kelly's cause of death, and subsequently arrange the issuing of a full death certificate.
While it is not unusual for an inquest to be adjourned in favour of an inquiry, it is extremely odd for an inquest to continue surreptitously, without the knowledge of the judge leading the inquiry.
And while it is normal for an interim death certificate to be issued prior to an inquiry, it is extremely odd for a FULL death certificate to be produced during the inquiry, before the facts of the case have been established. Certainly QC Michael Powers, an expert in coroners' law, was 'astonished' that a full death certificate was issued during the inquiry.
In an article in the Mail on Sunday Norman Baker describes what happened:
I have unearthed the fact that a full death certificate was issued by the local registrar (following the instructions of the coroner) on August 18 - a week after the Hutton Inquiry started hearing evidence - giving explicit reasons for death.
I have a copy of that certificate. It cites haemorrhage and incised wounds to the left wrist, conclusions that are far from certain for the reasons given above.
When I asked Harriet Harman how it was that the coroner was able to establish cause of death when the Hutton Inquiry had barely started, she replied that he 'was able to ascertain reasons for ... death from the post-mortem report from the Home Office pathologist, Dr Hunt, and the toxicology report from Dr Allan. The death certificate, we now learn, was issued as a result of a meeting on August 14 between Dr Hunt, Dr Allan (or their representatives) and the coroner. A parliamentary question I asked has now revealed that this meeting followed an unusual, even irregular, meeting between Home Office officials and the coroner on August 11. Doubtless the officials were able to help guide the coroner on the way forward.
So what was the point of setting up an inquiry to look into the circumstances of Dr Kelly's death when the facts had, it appears, already been decided? And where did that leave the normal inquest procedure, as even that wasn't followed?
More pertinently still, the Coroners Rules required that 'where an inquest has been adjourned for any reason', an interim certificate of death shall be issued if needed. In effect, this is a certificate only to confirm death and allow the body to be buried. Clearly, the rule was not followed in this case.
I discussed the matter with Michael Powers QC, a leading expert on coroners' law, who professed himself astonished that a full death certificate could have been issued in this way. So with the Hutton Inquiry barely started, the Oxfordshire coroner determines the cause of death without the normal inquest procedure, bases this on the severing of the ulnar artery, the only such cause of death in the whole of2003, and relies exclusively, it seems, on Dr Allan, who later would tell the inquiry that the level of coproxamol present was insufficient to cause death, and on the findings of pathologist Nicholas Hunt.