R (on the application of Leeson) v HM Coroner for Manchester South, Donald McPherson, Scottish Widows & Others  EWHC 62 (Admin)
The Relevance of Motive where there is Evidence of Foul Play
The facts of this unusual and unhappy case concerned the drowning of Ms Leeson in an indoor swimming pool in remote holiday accommodation in Denmark where she had been holidaying with her husband, Donald McPherson.
The medical evidence showed that Ms Leeson had drowned but also identified blunt force injuries on her body. These injuries appeared to be consistent with either unlawful force being applied to Ms Leeson causing her to drown or by attempts at rescue and resuscitation made by Mr McPherson after he found her in the swimming pool. In other words, two starkly different scenarios appeared possible.
Mr McPherson was subsequently prosecuted for his wife’s murder. It was the Prosecution’s case that Mr McPherson was the beneficiary of excessive life and travel insurance policies which he had taken out in relation to Ms Leeson in the sum of about £3.5 million. Whilst the Crown accepted that the medical evidence was consistent either with accident or the unlawful killing of Ms Leeson, the fact of the excessive life insurance policies, and other circumstantial evidence, meant that the jury could be sure that Ms Leeson had been murdered. Mr McPherson’s defence was that Ms Leeson had drowned accidentally while he had been asleep in the bedroom resting before they started their journey back home, and that her injuries had been caused by his attempts to resuscitate her.
Mr McPherson was acquitted at trial, at half time, following a successful submission of no case to answer. The Crown Court judge found that whilst the possibility of Mr McPherson physically restraining Ms Leeson under water was more likely than an accidental drowning a jury could not be sure of this (on the face of the pathological evidence alone) as is required by the criminal standard of proof.
Following the conclusion of the criminal trial, the Coroner resumed the inquest into Ms Leeson’s death. The Coroner restricted the scope of the inquest to Ms Leeson’s general health and relevant medical history and events from her arrival on holiday in Denmark until her death with particular focus on the day of her death. The practical effect of the Coroner’s ruling was that evidence of the taking out of life insurance policies by Mr McPherson and much of the other circumstantial evidence relied on in the criminal proceedings would not be considered.
The Judicial Review unsurprisingly concerned the rationality of the Coroner’s decision to restrict the scope in this way. It was argued that the result was that evidence which was critical (and quite obviously so) to the determination of how Ms Leeson died (whether accident or unlawful killing) would be excluded from consideration thereby frustrating the statutory purpose of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009.
The High Court agreed and observed that the question of whether the taking out of the insurance policies provided a motive or reason for the unlawful killing of Ms Leeson could be appropriately considered in deciding the statutory question of “how” Ms Leeson came by her death.
The High Court has also noted that there was no obligation on the Coroner to adduce “rooms full of evidence” (as referred to in submissions) but rather that Rule 23 could permit evidence about the insurance policies to be given in a proportionate manner as well as other relevant evidence through transcripts from the Crown Court trial.
When reading the Coroner’s initial decision in relation to the scope of the inquest one cannot help but feel that this is the result, in part, of the higher courts increasing emphasis on inquests remaining relatively summary processes (see R(Morahan) v Assistant Coroner for West London  EWCA Civ 1410). Whilst that does appear to be the message from the higher courts this should not undermine the fundamental function of the Coroner‘s court as set out in Section 5 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. As the High Court observed in this case: “a Coroner must ensure that relevant facts are the subject of public scrutiny, particularly if there is evidence of foul play”. This means that an inquest is not (and should not) be restricted to “the last link in the chain of causation”.