On the 7th of February, 2012, The Attorney General of Northern Ireland, Mr John Larkin, QC, issued an order to the then Senior Coroner, John Leckey (retired 2015), ordering a second inquest into the death of County Down teenager, Christopher Coulter. The cause of Christopher’s death in December 1994, was determined at an inquest the following year, to be asphyxiation during a seizure. Ten days earlier, Christopher had been given the MR combined measles and rubella vaccine at school. Reportedly, a class mate who received the vaccine at the same time also suffered a seizure.
The application for a re-examination of Christopher’s case was made under section 14 of 1959 Coroner Act which states:
Where the Attorney General has reason to believe that a deceased person has died in circumstances which in his opinion make the holding of an inquest advisable he may direct any coroner… to conduct an inquest into the death of that person… whether or not he or any other coroner has viewed the body, made any inquiry or investigation, held any inquest into or done any other act in connection with the death.
In other words, the Attorney General can order and inquest although a death may not fulfill the usual criteria whereby an inquest would be required. Further, the Attorney General can order the coroner to conduct an inquest after a death has been investigated and even after an inquest has been conducted. Ordering the re-examination of Christopher Coulter’s death, the Attorney General remarked:
I believe it to be of enormous public importance that the possible role of the MR vaccine in the death of an apparently healthy boy be fully explored.
The implication being, of course, that it had not been. Pádraig Ó Muirigh, the solicitor then acting for the Coulter family, confirming that Marcel Kinsbourne, a retired paediatric neurologist and “vaccination expert” was now involved in Christopher Coulter’s case, stated:
The Coulter family welcome the decision of the Attorney-General to direct a fresh inquest into the death of Christopher. An application was made by our office under section 14 of the Coroner Act 1959 to the Attorney-General to re-open the inquest in light of the report of Dr Marcel Kinsbourne, a vaccination expert, into the circumstances of the death of Christopher.
As outlined in the timeline in the first part of this series, the progress of this new inquest has been beset by postponements. Of the earliest in this catalogue of delays, the responsibility rests, in no small part, with expert witness, Marcel Kinsbourne.
In a preliminary hearing in November 2013, Coroner Suzanne Anderson, put the start date forward by a proposed five months to April/May 2014 citing Kinsbourne’s “other commitments” preventing his attendance. Offering testimony by video link proved no solution to scheduling problems as the Coroner’s Court had only one venue capable of accommodating such. Eugene McKenna, now acting for the Coulter family stated that, “From the family’s perspective they would prefer to have [Kinsbourne] here.”
Exceptional Case Funding
“My biggest mistake was not taking a solicitor to the original inquest. I did not have the knowledge and we were too broken to understand that. A man from the church and our doctor just came with us.” Anne Coulter, Christopher’s mother, thedetail.tv, March, 2011.
Dates set for the 17th June and 19th November saw little progress towards a re-examination of Christopher’s death with his family unable to secure Exceptional Case Funding, a rarely awarded form of Legal Aid.
Legal Aid is a fund intended to help people unable to afford it pay for legal advice, representation at court or tribunal or family mediation. The sum is limited and only granted if a case is deemed sufficiently serious. In Northern Ireland, the fund is administered by The Legal Services Agency Northern Ireland (LSANI). Unlike public defender and similar systems, LSANI does not appoint nor recommend legal professionals to cover a case. Legal Aid does not, ordinarily, provide for representation for the family of a deceased person at inquest. In rare circumstances, however, Exceptional Case Funding (ECF) may be granted under Article 10 of the Legal Aid, Advice and Assistance (Northern Ireland) Order,1981.
To be considered for an ECF award, the application must come from the deceased’s next of kin. The case must also warrant “Wider public interest” as defined in the Lord Chancellor’s guidance on ECF as ” the potential of the proceedings to produce real benefits for individuals other than the applicant.” ECF may also be awarded if representation is required to aid the coroner to conduct an Article 2 compliant inquest. Provision of the grant is also considered with regard to
“the nature and seriousness of any allegations likely to be raised at the inquest, in particular, any allegations against public authorities or other agencies of the state.”
Receipt of such a grant is rare indeed:
“The Lord Chancellor expects it to be extremely unusual for him to authorize the Commission to fund an individual case which would not receive ordinary Legal Aid”
On the 13th November, 2018, High Court Judge, Mr Justice McCloskey, granted Anne Coulter leave to seek a judicial review into her not being granted ECF. In his comments, McCloskey condemned the coroner for not taking into account published guidance from the Lord Chancellor on the matter and declared Christopher’s case as being of, “unmistakable public interest.” He has yet to rule on whether an Article 2 inquest will be required.
Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, states:
(1) Everyone’s right to life shall be protected by law. No one shall be deprived of his life intentionally save in the execution of a sentence of a court following his conviction of a crime for which this penalty is provided by law.
(2) Deprivation of life shall not be regarded as inflicted in contravention of this Article when it results from the use of force which is necessary:
(a) in defence of any person from unlawful violence.
(b) in order to effect a lawful arrest or to prevent the escape of a person lawfully detained.
(c) in action lawfully taken for the purpose of quelling a riot or insurrection.
featured image: Gates of Hillsborough Castle, Wiki Commons.