Home Secretary seeks to withhold documents from Senior Coroner investigating death of Russian whistleblower, in important test case on inquest procedure

In an unprecedented application, the Home Secretary is asking the High Court to permit her not to disclose documents to a Senior Coroner who is investigating the death of a Russian whistleblower in Surrey in 2012.

 

The Senior Coroner’s investigation concerns the death of Alexander Perepilichnyy four years ago.  He collapsed and died in the road whilst running in Weybridge, Surrey, on 10th November 2012.  In June 2013 Surrey Police indicated that they did not consider that there were any suspicious circumstances about his death.  However recent expert evidence suggests that there may have been a toxic plant present in his body, and that he may have been poisoned. 

 

A number of Interested Persons in the inquest proceedings believe that Alexander Perepilichnyy was murdered, probably through an undetected poison, as a reprisal killing for his role in whistleblowing on a £150 million fraud of which London-based investment company Hermitage Capital Management, represented by Henrietta Hill QC and Adam Straw, was the victim.  Sergei Magnitsky, and possibly two others, have already been killed for similar roles.  From 2010 until shortly before his death in late 2012, Mr. Perepilich­nyy had assisted Hermitage in exposing the fraud.  He pro­vided evi­dence to Her­mitage and twice tes­ti­fied to the Swiss pros­e­cu­tors.  He sub­se­quently received death threats.  He then died suddenly in late 2012.  Geoffrey Robertson QC has previously appeared for Hermitage in the inquest proceedings and has raised concerns about the delays in the investigation into Mr. Perepilich­nyy’s death.  At a pre-inquest review hearing in June 2016 Henrietta Hill QC criticised Surrey Police for not being “fully transparent.” 

 

In January 2016, following Sir Robert Owen’s findings that Alexander Litvinenko was probably killed on the orders of Vladimir Putin, then Shadow Home Secretary Andy Burnham MP called for a public inquiry into Mr. Perepilich­nyy’s death.  Andy Burnham MP said that the death of a second Russian dissident on British soil was unlikely to be a coincidence, that “it would be a mistake to assume that the Litvinenko situation is a one off,” and that suspicion is aroused by the nature of Mr. Perepilich­nyy’s work and the suddenness of his death.

 

The Senior Coroner asked the Government to turn over any material they had that relates to (a) whether there were threats to Mr. Perepilich­nyy’s life before he died; (b) whether there was third party involvement in his death; and/or (c) whether he had had contact with certain named individuals who are potential suspects.  The Government claimed Public Interest Immunity (“PII”) in respect of their entire response to those questions, as well as in respect of a number of documents in the possession of Surrey Police which they objected to non-governmental Interested Persons seeing.  Highly unusually, the Government is also refusing to show the relevant, sensitive documents to the Senior Coroner to enable him to consider them and decide the PII questions, on the basis that he does not have the top level of security clearance, Developed Vetting (“DV”).  The Senior Coroner has been asked by Hermitage and the insurance company Legal and General Assurance Society (both Interested Persons in the inquest) to seek transfer of the investigation to a Judge or Coroner who is DV cleared, but he has refused to do so. 

 

The Home Secretary has now made an unprecedented application to the High Court: a free-standing PII application under Part 31 of the Civil Procedure Rules, in which she seeks an Order permitting her not to disclose relevant documents to the Senior Coroner on the ground that disclosure would damage the public interest.  The hearing is listed on 14th and 15th November 2016 and is due to be heard partly in open court and partly in closed session.  This is a significant case in its own right and it raises more general questions about the conduct of inquests which raise national security questions before coroners who are not DV cleared.

 

The application is brought by the Home Secretary against the Senior Coroner.  Interested Parties in the inquest proceedings have no automatic right to be heard, but the High Court has permitted representations to be made by the bereaved family, Hermitage and the insurance company.   

 

The High Court has also invited Guardian News and Media and INQUEST to make written representations.  Both organisations have raised concerns regarding the Home Secretary’s approach, including the lack of transparency, damage to the open justice principle, and the side-stepping of important safeguards in the coronial system for bereaved families, other Interested Persons, the media and the public.  Guardian News and Media is represented by Caoilfhionn Gallagher and Angela Patrick, instructed by Zoe Norden of Guardian News and Media.  INQUEST is represented by Heather Williams QC and Jesse Nicholls, instructed by Daniel Machover and Eva Whittall, Hickman and Rose.

 

The Home Secretary’s application will be heard before Mr Justice Cranston at Court 27, Royal Courts of Justice, commencing at 10am on Monday 14th November 2016.

 

Further background on the case is available from:

·         The Guardian

·         The Telegraph

·         The Daily Mail

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