R (Hurst) v HM Coroner for Northern District London

JurisdictionUK Non-devolved
Judgment Date28 March 2007
Neutral Citation[2007] UKHL 13
CourtHouse of Lords
Date28 March 2007
R (on the application of Hurst)
Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis

[2007] UKHL 13

Appellate Committee

Lord Bingham of Cornhill

Lord Rodger of Earlsferry

Baroness Hale of Richmond

Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood

Lord Mance



Ian Burnett QC

Anne Studd

Beatrice Collier

(Instructed by Metropolitan Police Legal Services)


Keir Starmer QC

Danny Friedman

(Instructed by Bhatt Murphy)


Lord Goldsmith QC

Philip Sales QC

(Instructed by Treasury Solicitor)


My Lords,


I have had the advantage of reading in draft the opinion of my noble and learned friend Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood. I am in full agreement with it, and would accordingly allow the appeal.


My Lords,


The respondent in this appeal is Mrs Christine Hurst. Her son, Troy Hurst, was stabbed to death by Albert Reid on 25 May 2000. This was the culmination of a long series of events which demonstrated the violent nature of Reid and his particular hostility to members of the Hurst family. Many of these incidents had been drawn to the attention of the police and the local housing authority. Indeed, on the day of Mr Hurst's death various reports had been made to the police. Although an inquest was opened into Mr Hurst's death, it was adjourned because Reid had been charged with murder. Following his conviction for manslaughter, Mrs Hurst asked the coroner to exercise his discretion to resume the adjourned inquest under section 16(3) of the Coroners Act 1988 ("the 1988 Act"). She wished the coroner to investigate what she alleged were the failings of the police and the housing authority, Barnet Council, to protect her son from Reid. By letter dated 19 November 2002 the coroner declined to reopen the inquest.


Under section 11(5)(b)(ii) of the 1988 Act the inquisition returned at the end of an inquest is to set out "how, when and where the deceased came by his death." These apparently simple words have been pored over by the courts on many occasions. It is not, however, disputed that, in accordance with the decision of the Court of Appeal in R v Coroner for North Humberside and Scunthorpe, Ex p Jamieson [1995] QB 1, under domestic English law an inquest is to determine "by what means", as opposed to "in what broad circumstances", the deceased came by his death. As my noble and learned friend, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, explains, however, it is agreed between the actual parties to the present proceedings that, by reason of article 2 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, the obligation of the United Kingdom under international law is to hold an investigation which will cover the possibility that failures of the public authorities contributed to Mr Hurst's death.


The Court of Appeal held that, having regard to Jamieson, there would have been no obligation to hold an inquest with that wider scope before the Human Rights Act 1998 ("the 1998 Act") came into force on 2 October 2000. But, after that date, by reason of section 3 of the 1998 Act, section 11(5)(b)(ii) of the 1988 Act required to be read in a way that was compatible with article 2. So the coroner should be ordered to resume the inquest at which it would be his duty to return an inquisition setting out "by what means and in what circumstances" Mr Hurst died. An inquest with that scope would be capable of covering the allegations against the public authorities, including the police.


The Commissioner of the Police of the Metropolis appealed against that decision and argued that the Court of Appeal had misinterpreted section 3 of the 1998 Act. Counsel for Mrs Hurst sought to sustain the Court of Appeal's decision principally on the basis of a broad argument about the effect of the international law obligation in article 2 of the Convention on the approach to be adopted by the coroner. He put rather less weight on the section 3 argument deployed by the Court of Appeal and even less on a further argument relating to section 22(4) of the 1998 Act.


What Mrs Hurst had not done, however, was to challenge the Court of Appeal's decision that the allegations against the police could not have come within the scope of an inquest of the Jamieson type. For that reason her counsel explicitly acknowledged at the hearing before the House that he could not re-open that aspect of the Court of Appeal's decision. The decision itself is understandable, given that the earlier decision of this House in R (Middleton) v West Somerset Coroner [2004] 2 AC 182, a case of suicide in prison, proceeded on the basis that Jamieson correctly identified the (limited) scope of a verdict under English domestic law. In particular, under rule 36 of the Coroners Rules 1984 "the proceedings and evidence at an inquest" are to be directed only to "how" - in the sense of "by what means"- the deceased came by his death. Therefore, any right to a wider inquiry (into any failure by the prison authorities to put the deceased on a suicide watch) was to be obtained via the application of section 3 of the 1998 Act.


The scope of the inquiry, as opposed to the verdict, is a matter for the coroner. Buxton LJ said that, although the coroner in this case had not asked himself "at what point the chain of causation becomes too remote to form a proper part of his investigation", nevertheless, if he had done so, the question could only have been answered in one way – viz, that, applying the approach in Jamieson, the chain of causation was indeed too remote to form part of his investigation in this case: [2005] 1 WLR 3892, 3899. At an earlier point in his judgment Buxton LJ had held that any failings of the police to respond to urgent reports of incidents involving the Hurst family were too remote for consideration at any renewed inquest because "any direct causal connection between the failings of the police and the death was broken by the violent intervention of Mr Reid": [2005] 1 WLR 3892, 3898.


Often, of course, the law does treat a deliberate act of a third party as breaking a chain of causation. But not always. It depends on the purpose for which the existence of the causal connexion is being used. I refer to the well-known passages in the speeches of Lord Hoffmann in Environment Agency (formerly National Rivers Authority) v Empress Car Co (Abertillery) Ltd [1999] 2 AC 22, 30G-32A and Reeves v Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis [2000] 1 AC 360, 367G-368B. Here the need for a causal connexion between an alleged failure and Mr Hurst's death is being used as a way of determining the scope of the inquest. It is not self-evident - to me at least - that any failures by the police to respond to warnings would be too remote to be considered at an inquest simply because Reid committed precisely the kind of violent act which the people giving the warnings feared would happen. Indeed, uninstructed by the case law, I too might have found it difficult to imagine that a resumed inquest would not examine at least some of the authorities' alleged failures. But I have to accept that the cases show that, in relation to Jamieson inquests, "how" is to be interpreted narrowly in both section 11(5)(b)(ii) of the 1988 Act and rule 36 of the Coroners Rules. On that basis it can be said that the authorities' failures would lie outside the scope of a resumed inquest.


In reality, therefore, the appeal was actually fought out on the other three arguments. I agree with what Lord Brown says on each of them.


While I could not help but admire the ingenious ways in which the Court of Appeal attempted to distinguish In re McKerr [2004] 1 WLR 807, for the reasons given by Lord Brown those attempts were doomed to fail. In particular, in section 3 the expression "the Convention rights" must be interpreted in the same way as in section 6 - as referring to the rights and fundamental freedoms set out in the articles set out in Schedule 1. See section 1(1). Any other approach would make section 6(2)(b) unworkable.


In the Jordan appeal [2007] UKHL 14 Mr Blake took the matter a stage further, however. His argument, as applied to Mrs Hurst's case, would be that, even assuming that, for the reasons given in McKerr, Mrs Hurst had no article 2 Convention right to require an investigation into her son's death, nevertheless the broader construction of section 11(5)(b)(ii) of the 1988 Act established by R (Middleton) v West Somerset Coroner [2004] 2 AC 182 should be applied whenever the provision was in play - whether or not the person seeking the resumption of the inquest had an article 2 Convention right. The result would seem to be that the ambit of the jury's verdict would be widened in every inquest.


A somewhat similar point has arisen in cases where legislation has to be given a particular interpretation in order to comply with a requirement of European Community law. Where no potential infringement of Community law is involved, can a party insist on the legislation being applied in the same way? As Lord Brown shows, the answer given by the courts is that he cannot: the legislation is interpreted differently, depending on whether or not Community rights are involved. The same should apply in the present context also.


Although at first sight this may seem strange, any other solution would be even stranger. Here the coroner declined to resume the inquest on 19 November 2002. At that time Mrs Hurst could not herself have insisted on section 11(5)(b)(ii) of the 1988 Act being interpreted broadly in order to give effect to an article 2 Convention right. So, if she were now entitled to invoke the interpretation reached by the House in R (Middleton) v West Somerset Coroner more than a year later, her...

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