The Senior Coroner of Birmingham and Solihull, Mrs Louise Hunt handed down her decision today, 1st June 2016 as to whether she would re-open the inquests into the death of the 21 victims who died in the Town Tavern (8.20pm) and Mulberry Bush (8.18pm) pub bombings in 1974. The Coroner found that she has power to resume the Inquest and she reopened the inquest.

Inquests were opened in 28 November 1974 but adjourned. On 16 August 1975 the Birmingham Six were convicted and the inquests did not proceed. On 27 March 1991 the Court of Appeal quashed those convictions. If there is sufficient reason to do so the coroner can re-open the inquests. The coroner’s decision was split into 3 parts: 

Part 1: Concerned the preliminary issue of whether the coroner (1) was functus officio (referring to Flowers and the Coroners and Justice Act 2009) and (2) had the power to resume the Inquest. The coroner held that the power to resume the inquest was preserved notwithstanding the changes in legislation between 1974 and 2016. It was held that the inquests were suspended and the requisite power to resume the inquest was preserved by paragraph 8, Schedule 1 of the CJA 2009. The coroner stated she was functus officio and had power to resume the inquest.

Part 2: The test for resumption is whether there is “sufficient reason” to re-open the inquest. The coroner referred to the NI case of Re Downes’ applicationRe Daglallio and at paragraph of 10.85 of Jervis: the coroner must direct his attention to whether it has been established that the matters surrounding the death have been sufficiently established in other public proceedings, he may decide an inquest is not necessary. The court must however, fully fairly and fearlessly investigate and expose the relevant facts.

As to Article 2, a number of cases (Palmer, Silih, Jancovic) support the proposition that the State is not absolved of a duty to investigate deaths which took place before the commencement of the Human Rights Act 1998, but in English Courts the approach was held to be different (McKerr, McCaughey). The coroner said she was bound by the English cases so she rejected that in principle Article 2 renders it mandatory for an Inquest to be held in this case. However, the coroner later stated that Article 2 is arguably engaged on the facts, as the State had forewarnings of the bombs. Therefore, the inquests will be Article 2 compliant.

Part 3: Whether the test for resumption is met: the coroner identified 2 occasions where there was evidence that the State did have notice but failed to take steps and this was of sufficient weight to warrant further investigation. 

Advanced notice: Two individuals said “Birmingham would be hit next week“. This was reported on 10 November 1974 to West Midlands Police but there was no indication that the police took any active response and this may have been a missed opportunity. The second incident took place on the day of the bombings; a second witness overheard Irish men discussing plans about the bombings. He attended Tally Ho police college and reported it. No police officer was available. No further action was taken that day regarding that incident against the background of a possible reprisal for the death of James McDaid and heightened awareness. This may have been a second missed opportunity.

Informant argument: Sensitive evidence has been disclosed by West Midlands Police; this does not suggest that any improper steps were taken to protect an informant, and so the coroner rejected it as a basis for opening the inquest.

Emergency services: As to whether ambulance services were ill prepared, the coroner found that there is no opportunity to test evidence from Fireman Alan Hill (deceased). Additionally, the coroner reviewed the documents and concluded that there was no evidence that the delay caused or contributed to the deaths and therefore this was not a ground for re-opening the inquest.

Furthermore, although other investigations had been undertaken, they were not conclusive and they did not detract from the fact that further investigations were possible. The coroner accepted that there was a wealth of evidence still available which has not in the main been seen by the families, the other interested persons or the public. Whilst evidential problems will arise, an Inquest is still practicable 41 years after the bombings.

Further media coverage – 
The Telegraph – Birmingham pub bombings: Inquests reopened, as coroner says ‘police missed warnings’

Nageena Khalique QC is the head of the Inquests, Public Inquries and Coronial Law Group and Rachel Thomas is a Pupil at No5 Chambers, click here to view Nageena’s profile.