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Rt Hon Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, GBE

Assistant Deputy Coroner of the Inner West London

Opening statement for a Pre-Inquest Hearing
for the inquests into the deaths
of the late Diana, Princess of Wales and Dodi Al Fayed

Court 36 Royal Courts of Justice

15th May 2007 at 10 am.

I should like to make a short opening statement.  As you are all aware, Lord Justice Scott Baker is to take over conduct of these inquests soon.  For that purpose he will shortly be appointed as Assistant Deputy Coroner for Inner West London.  He is preparing his new role and appears he will be in a position to hold a procedural hearing in the week commencing 11th June.  It will probably be either the 12th or 13th.  Until the start of that week I shall continue to preside over the inquests.  However, I shall be careful to leave certain issues for determination by my successor, as he will be conducting the inquest hearing proper which he has decided to hold in Court 73 of the Royal Courts of Justice.  He will have the assistance of a secretary to the inquest and a solicitor; neither is yet in post.

In the light of some of the correspondence received by my office and by Operation Paget I should again like to make a few general remarks about the function of a inquest.  I have a feeling that the fact that this is an inquest sometimes escapes the attention of some of those representing interested persons.

An inquest is an inquisitorial process in which a coroner publicly investigates the circumstances of a death.  There are no parties to inquest proceedings and the rules of evidence which apply to adversarial litigation do not govern the proceedings.  The tactics used in litigation often have no place in an inquest, a fact which lawyers can sometimes forget.  For example, it can be unhelpful and distracting for interested persons to attempt to cross-examine the coroner's office by correspondence.

I should also point out that the officers of Operation Paget are now acting in the capacity of coroner's officers rather than as police officers investigating the crime.  It is important for everyone to appreciate their role.  They are assisting me and will continue to assist my successor.

The focus of this hearing today is likely to be on the disclosure of documents.  In recent weeks the officers of Operation Paget have worked extremely hard to produce statements and other material expressly referred to and relied upon in the coroner's report and the Stephens report.  I reviewed that material and have disclosed the bulk of it to the interested persons.  The coroner's report and the Stephens report and underlying material have been produced mainly in computerised form but I understand that when printed out it runs to approximately 11,000 pages.  In addition there are over 1,400 photographs, several DVDs, large-sized plans and other data which has been made available for inspection by Operation Paget.

I appreciate the demands made on some of the lawyers or interested persons.  There may have been some feeling of frustration at having to wait for documents to be provided but I hope they will realise, if they have not realised up to now, that Operation Paget and my team are very much smaller than their teams and we have been working extremely hard to provide all the material which has now been provided.

The relevant documents have almost all been provided.  None has been withheld other than for reasons which are stated and are subject to submission from counsel.  I am in the process of providing everything which is relevant and which will be seen not to be withheld for the purposes of the inquest.  Consequently a statement in today's Telegraph clearly based upon the situation before the information was provided to the interested persons is both unhelpful and untrue.

And a small point: the experts who were invited to attend, two days were set aside by Operation Paget to look after them and they stayed for half a day. 

As I said in the ruling made after the last hearing, this disclosure exercise has gone far beyond what the law normally requires in an inquest.  There remain some unresolved issues, such as public interest immunity.  There may also have been some inadvertent admissions. There are likely to be applications for still more documents and those applications will have to be adjudicated.  Even after the inquest hearings have started, there may be further considerations of disclosure as particular lines of enquiry are pursued.

Having said all that, it should not be forgotten that voluminous material has been supplied in a very thorough process and this is because I believe that openness is an important feature of this exercise.  It is important to reiterate that not all the material which has been disclosed to interested persons will be used in evidence.  All interested persons to whom documents have been disclosed have signed strict confidentiality undertakings and because this is an inquest the coroner will determine what evidence is called, what documents go before the jury, having heard submissions from the interested persons.

Finally I should like to make some more comments about the expert evidence.  In any inquest it is a matter for the coroner to decide what expert evidence he or she wishes to call.  Interested persons may ask the coroner to call a particular expert and the coroner may or may not agree.  In these inquests some interested persons have instructed experts to advise them on issues of forensic science and medicine and on the mechanics of vehicle collision.  If they wish to ask for any particular experts to be called, they will have to produce reports from those experts soon.  It should be possible for those experts to hold discussions with Operation Paget experts and to produce provisional reports even if they do not have all the documents that they would like to see.