These words, the first to be spoken on the opening day of the 7 July Inquests, by Lady Justice Hallett on 11 October 2010, set the tone for the 75 days which followed in Court 73 of the Royal Courts of Justice. More than 300 witnesses gave evidence, some of them grievously injured on 7 July. To say that they were brave in the face of adversity does not begin to do justice to their human spirit, not to mention their eloquence when giving evidence under the gaze of the world’s media, and in a courtroom bristling with computer screens and populated by up to fifty counsel and solicitors, together with a dignified cohort of grieving relatives of those who died.
Legal background to the inquests
The catastrophic events of 7 July 2005 have been subjected to intense scrutiny and exhaustive commentary by courts, parliamentary committees, media reports and online pressure groups ever since. Some would say that questions are yet to be answered about the tragic events that day. Others contend that the resumption of these inquests, at very considerable public expense in a time of economic austerity, was a waste of money. The legal background is that the formal inquests into the 56 deaths (52 innocent people, 4 murderous terrorists) had to stand adjourned pending the completion of criminal proceedings including two trials of persons alleged to have conspired with the bombers by undertaking a reconnaissance mission to London in December 2004. Those trials concluded, with convictions for terrorist training offences, but not for conspiracy, in 2009. In the meantime, the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee had taken evidence and published two reports into 7/7, in 2006 and 2009.
Resumption of inquests
Lady Justice Hallett, sometime Chair of the Bar Council and a brilliant choice for the dedication and compassion she displayed throughout the inquests, was appointed Deputy Assistant Coroner; she had to decide whether previous proceedings were sufficient, in which case there was no warrant for the resumption of the inquests. The legal argument on resumption took a week, in April 2010. On 21st May 2010, Hallett LJ ruled in favour of resuming the 52 inquests (not for the 4 bombers themselves, however), observing that the investigations that had taken place so far had not addressed in any detail some of the questions relating to the immediate aftermath of the explosions that the bereaved families wanted to explore. This matter alone amounted to sufficient cause for resumption. She did not stop there. The 52 resumed inquests would also investigate issues relating to the emergency response on 7 July, and alleged intelligence failings in advance of that day.
The “ground rules”
Scope of inquests
To experienced inquest practitioners, the ruling on the scope of the resumed inquests begs the question whether the investigative obligation within Article 2 of the ECHR is engaged, and whether these were to be “Jamieson” inquests (after R v HM Coroner for North Humberside and Scunthorpe ex parte Jamieson QB1) limited to discovering “by what means the deceased came by his death”, or “Middleton” inquests (after R(Middleton) v West Somerset Coroner and another AC182) enhanced in order to discover “by what means and in what circumstances the deceased came by his death”. Distinctions which may appear subtle to the non-legal reader are of course, all too significant to practitioners.
In the event, Hallett LJ rejected the argument founded on Article 2 as to the investigative obligation. For those interested, the turning point on this issue depended upon the effect of the ECtHR decision in Osman v United Kingdom  29EHRR 245, as interpreted by other cases including Mastromatteo v Italy  Application No.37703/97.
Notwithstanding the “Non-Article 2” ruling, Hallett LJ resolved to push the boundaries of the Jamieson model as far as possible, and hence to hear evidence on what became known as the possible “preventability” of 7 July, in other words an exploration of the intelligence case against the bombers. Her conclusion was:
“It will help put minds at rest, confirm or allay the rumour and suspicion generated by conspiracy theorists and most importantly answer those of the families’ questions that can be asked. To those who ask ‘what is the point?’ I would reply: to those who lost their loved ones on 7 July 2005, there may be every point.”
Without a jury
As to whether the factual situation on 7th July required the summoning of a jury under mandatory provisions of the Coroners Act 1988, Hallet LJ ruled that they did not apply, and moreover declined to exercise her discretion to summon a jury, in part because of the likelihood that sensitive intelligence material would be more effectively examined without a jury. This last decision might be thought controversial, but it was ultimately agreed to by all parties (“interested persons”, in the language of inquest proceedings.)
The evidence unfolded over 75 days of relentless and often harrowing detail, commencing with a minute-by-minute appraisal of events at each of the four bomb scenes, then turning to a sequence of factual issues including medical ‘survivability’, command and control structures for each of the emergency response services, and ultimately the intelligence material touching two of the bombers on those occasions during 2004-5 when they appeared on the Security Services radar.
I dare say all instructed counsel were exhausted by the end. On the last day of evidence, which concluded exactly on time and within budget on 3rd March 2011, Hallett LJ admitted ‘I confess there were times when I myself did not believe it possible’. We all echoed that.
Metropolitan Police Service
My client, the Metropolitan Police Service occupied a unique position in that its officers were among the first responders, and the MPS was responsible for the unprecedented criminal investigation into the bombings, known as Operation Theseus, as a result of which it holds more than 30,000 statements and 40,000 exhibits, all made available to the Coroner. Moreover, the MPS performed the function of Coroners Officer, duty bound to assist and facilitate the coronial process. This mixture made for a busy time for my team, preparing evidence and calling witnesses all the way up to the highest levels within the Service. But we were not alone; in their own ways many other emergency responders including other police forces plus ambulance, fire and underground, all undertook the enormous task of disclosure and evidence preparation according to the strict timetable set by the Coroner and her very industrious team of counsel and solicitors.
As to the strain these proceedings placed on the bereaved families, we can only guess how terrible the toll has been on them, and whether any of it brought at least a measure of closure. I have been fortunate to have played my part in many long and difficult criminal trials over the years, but I have never seen a case as unremitting in terms of human tragedy and indiscriminate loss of valuable lives. Many brave people live to tell the tale of 7 July, and they were the first to recognise the shining examples of accomplishment and potential amongst those who perished. Some survivors found themselves apologising across the courtroom to the bereaved, expressing bewilderment at their survival when others died. I am sure I speak for all the lawyers present when I say that we could do no more than watch, and marvel at the strength of survivors and bereaved alike.
I cannot do justice to the sheer size and scope of the evidence. You can read the full transcript of every day of evidence at the official website: go to “Coroner’s Inquests into the London Bombings of 7 July 2005”. Of the many highlights, I would single out two: the work on death by blast injuries by Colonel Peter Mahoney, Defence Professor of anaesthetics at the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine; and the fact and content of the evidence given by Witness G, Chief of Staff to the Director-General of the Security Service.
Enough is enough, surely? Most would now agree, whatever their scepticism at the start of these inquests.
Some, of course, will never be satisfied. Conspiracy theorists have to make a living, don’t they? As to 7 July, that living will now have to be made on slimmer pickings. Not only did the inquests do everything possible to exhaust the big issues, they also gave the opportunity to squash many if not all of the theories beloved of bloggers worldwide: Is there any evidence to suggest that the explosions (1) were connected to a power surge on the underground, (2) took place underneath the trains rather than inside them, or (3) link to a fictional terrorism training exercise carried out at the beginning of July 2005? There is no evidence to support any of these theories. No doubt the bloggers will continue to do their best. My personal favourite remains the inscription on a placard held by one individual as he stood watching the lawyers and other interested persons entering the RCJ via the Bell Yard Gate on one of the final days of evidence. It read “How did C4 become TATP?” Whilst the casual observer might have wondered what Channel 4 were up to in court that day, a 7 July insider will have recognised the attempt to question the chemical components of the detonators in the bombs that day: C4 is a military grade high explosive, whereas TATP is triacetone triperoxide, a home-grown chemical mixture of hair bleach and nail varnish remover used by the attempted bombers on 21st July 2005, and itself a variant on the hair bleach and pepper mix (HMTD) used by the 7 July bombers. All very sinister? Or just another example of the confusion which surrounds high-profile events, of which 7 July is a prime example. Let us hope that is not the view taken by anyone who studies all of the evidence in this unique case, and that we never have to live through another.
The final day
On the final day of the proceedings, 6 May 2011, Hallett LJ had this to say:
“I should like to thank the bereaved families who lost their loved ones on 7 July 2005 for their understanding, for their support and their quiet dignity. They have waited for nearly six years for these proceedings to reach this stage. Despite their obvious grief, they have maintained their sense of fairness and moderation. They want to find out what happened, how their loved ones died, and whether the 52 deaths could have been prevented, but they do not necessarily seek to cast blame.”
The final word
I leave the last word to Hallett LJ “I am not aware of our having left any reasonable stone unturned. One would hope, therefore, that these proceedings will be an end to the investigation of what happened on 7/7”.
Max Hill QC
18 Red Lion Court
Colonel Peter Mahoney, Defence Professor of anaesthetics at the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine, did more than any other witness in answering the question which must have caused such anguish in the minds of many bereaved families: could lives have been saved amongst those who survived the initial blast but succumbed to their injuries? The answer, in Hallett LJ’s words:
"I am satisfied on the balance of probabilities that each of them would have died whatever time the emergency services had reached and rescued them."
Witness G, Chief of Staff to the Director-General of the Security Service: never before has so senior a member of the intelligence services given evidence in public proceedings, over several days and after an enormous disclosure exercise in which material never before seen in public was opened up to full scrutiny. The conclusion:
"it is also now common ground that the evidence I have heard does not justify the conclusion that any failings on the part of any organisation or individual caused or contributed to any of the deaths."