Salisbury Novichok Inquest – Coroner Overruled

09 Sep 2020

A key decision made by the Senior Coroner for Wiltshire and Swindon has been overruled, following a successful challenge made by the family of Dawn Sturgess.

The Senior Coroner who is dealing with the inquest into the death of Ms Sturgess initially ruled that the scope (boundary) of the inquest should be limited to considering only the involvement of two Russian military officers, Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov. He concluded that the possible involvement of the Russian state fell outside the scope and would therefore not be investigated.

An Inquest is an investigation into the cause of an “unnatural death”, but it is legally prohibited from determining any criminal culpability. In the most unlikely event that a criminal trial will be possible in this case, it falls to the coroner to carry out the appropriate investigation. The first role of a coroner is to make a decision on the scope of the inquest. In this case, it was argued on behalf of Ms Sturgess’s family that the scope should be extended to include the question of who ordered the attack, and that it was firmly in the public interest for all links to Russia to be considered during the inquest.

The facts leading up to the tragic death of Ms Sturgess are well known. She died from exposure to Novichok in the aftermath of the attempted poisoning of former Russian and MI6 agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury. Ms Sturgess came into contact with the Novichok when she used what appeared to be a perfume bottle, but which in fact contained the lethal nerve agent. It is now believed this was the bottle smuggled into the UK, and later discarded, by the two Russian agents who had targeted Mr Skripal a few months earlier.

Following Judicial Review proceedings, the findings of Lord Justice Bean and Mr Justice Lewis have now been made public. The judges quashed the coroner’s original decision, ruling that “There is acute and obvious public concern that an attempt was made on British soil by Russian agents to assassinate Mr Skripal and that it led to the death of Ms Sturgess, but also at the fact that it involved the use of a prohibited nerve agent exposing the population of Salisbury and Amesbury to lethal risk. There has been, and (to be realistic) there will be, no criminal trial in which the details of how this appalling event came to occur can be publicly examined.”

The Senior Coroner will now be asked to re-consider the scope of the inquest and make a final decision on how to proceed.

Tom Hartigan, Partner at Trethowans, specialises in Inquests and representing bereaved families in relation to all aspects of coronial proceedings. He comments that “This is a very significant decision. A coroner has discretion as to how wide a scope he will allow in an inquest, and it is unusual for such a decision to be challenged and overruled. In such a high profile case, there will now be even greater interest in the inquest that will be concluded in due course.”

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Tom Hartigan