HC Deb 02 February 1995 vol 253 cc1315-20

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Bates.]

10 pm

Sir Giles Shaw (Pudsey)

It is with considerable regret that I bring this particularly tragic case to the Floor of the House. I am most grateful that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department is in his place to respond to it.

Mrs. Patricia Hall lived with her husband, Keith, at 11 Moorland drive in Pudsey and was thus a constituent of mine. She has not been seen by anyone since Sunday 27 January 1992. The inquiry into her disappearance was led by Superintendents Stainthorpe and Hudson of the West Yorkshire police, who were stationed at Pudsey, and the evidence uncovered led to Mrs. Hall's husband, Keith, being arrested, charged and tried for the murder of his wife.

His trial lasted nine days and he was acquitted by a majority verdict of 10 to two almost one year ago. This is not the place to go into the detail of the trial; suffice to say that the main prosecution evidence rested upon a tape-recorded confession obtained by an undercover WPC, which was subsequently ruled inadmissible and unreliable by the trial judge.

However, in response to an application by Gilbert Gray QC, the judge allowed the transcript of the tape recording to be published. The case of Patricia Anne Hall and the surprising conclusion of the trial has become very much a matter of public concern and interest, both locally and nationally. With the acquittal of the accused, the incidents which gave rise to the alleged death of Mrs. Patricia Hall have not been proven to a point where her death might be formally recognised and so registered.

On the other hand, although the taped evidence was declared inadmissible as the basis for prosecution at a murder trial, it is possible that incidental information contained in the transcript which was published may provide circumstantial evidence to a coroner.

It is against that background that both the west Yorkshire coroner in post at that time and his successor, Mr. David Hinchliffe, the current coroner, considered that an application to the Home Office for an inquest to be held under section 15 of the Coroners Act 1988 should be made. As I understand it, section 15 of the 1988 Act permits the Home Secretary to direct an inquest to be opened to permit registration of death to take place under certain specific circumstances. It states: Where a coroner has reason to believe—

  1. (a) that a death has occurred in or near his district in such circumstances that an inquest ought to be held; and
  2. (b) that owing to the destruction of the body by fire or otherwise, or to the fact that the body is lying in a place from which it cannot be recovered, an inquest cannot be held except in pursuance of this section … he may report the facts to the Secretary of State".
This application was made by the west Yorkshire coroner on 7 April last year. The reply from the Home Office dated 22 July stated that the Home Secretary had decided not to direct an inquest under section 15 of the Act. The main reason was that any finding as to the cause of death, which section 16 requires, could not be inconsistent with the outcome of the criminal proceedings. He stated that it would be intolerable if any finding of an inquest should state that Mrs. Hall was "murdered by her husband" when he had been acquitted of that charge in criminal proceedings. Moreover, the Home Secretary did not think that there was a public interest matter at stake here.

On 31 August, the coroner wrote to the Home Secretary again enclosing a further copy of the transcript and renewing his request for direction under section 15. In October, the Home Office asked the coroner for further information to show that he had reason to believe that a death had occurred. A mere disappearance of a person would not be regarded as sufficient.

In particular, the Home Office stated that more evidence must have been laid before the Crown court independent of the confession, to establish the death of Patricia Anne Hall. As a consequence of the coroner's application to the Home Office, I became involved by receiving requests from relatives and other concerned constituents to support the coroner in his endeavours to hold an inquest.

If such an inquest were held, it could determine for registration purposes that Patricia Anne Hall was dead. The family might then with dignity draw a line through their grievous uncertainty. Moreover, I believed that the case had aroused substantial public interest and that that should be taken into account—supported by a strong local press campaign that an inquest was desirable.

To fulfil the Home Office request for evidence outwith the transcript, the coroner requested West Yorkshire police to provide such evidence that they could obtain that Patricia Anne Hall had died. Senior investigating officers of West Yorkshire police provided a report to the coroner dated 10 November 1994, which sought to meet his request. It concluded: In the light of all the evidence gathered it remains the unanimous view of the inquiry team that Mrs. Hall was killed at 11 Moorland Drive, Pudsey, on Monday 27 January 1992. Accordingly, the coroner wrote to the Home Office on 21 November setting out the revised evidence that, in his view, would support the case for a section 15 application. He concluded with this summary:

  1. "(i) The enclosed report from West Yorkshire Police demonstrates the likelihood that Mrs. Hall is dead.
  2. (ii) Mrs. Hall's home address, which is the place where she likely met her death, is within my jurisdiction.
  3. (iii) The enclosed report from West Yorkshire Police refers to the likely circumstances of the destruction of the body.
  4. (iv) I refer to my previous correspondence regarding my concern for an inquest to be held, which is stated in detail in my letter of the 7th April 1994."
I wrote to the Home Secretary in support of thait application, and I consider that it would be in the best interests of all parties that such an inquest should be held. An inquest could determine, for registration purposes, that Patricia Anne Hall is dead. An inquest would provide substantial relief to Mrs. Hall's relatives and might enable a settlement of her affairs. It would also meet substantial public interest supported by a strong local press campaign and, above all, would allow the coroner to discharge his perceived duty.

As yet, there has been no reply from the Home Secretary on that matter. It is time that such a reply was made, and that is why I applied to Madam Speaker for this Adjournment debate.

I recognise that that request has caused—and probably is causing—difficult legal issues to be raised within the Home Office. The jurisdiction of a coroner is somewhat constrained. Although the acquittal of the man accused of murdering Mrs. Hall has already determined that particular line of inquiry, it does not seem to me impossible that a coroner's verdict could be arrived at which in no way either involves the taped admission itself—deemed unreliable and inadmissible by the trial judge—or conflicts with the verdict of the higher court. It seems to me that a verdict such as "killed unlawfully" or an open verdict would certainly not conflict with the Crown court. The cause of death could be described in medical terms as "unascertainable". It also seems to me that the Home Secretary has received sufficient additional evidence to demonstrate the likelihood that Mrs. Hall is dead, and there is no doubt that if that evidence is accepted the death clearly occurred within the west Yorkshire coroner's jurisdiction. The report from the West Yorkshire police team indicates the likely circumstances of the disposal and subsequent destruction of the body and shows that such actions would have been practicable.

I deduce from that, therefore, that all the requirements of the coroner by the correspondence with the Home Office and the answers to all the questions that it set down for elucidation before arriving at its decision have now been fully and fairly delivered and that the answers should enable the Home Office to make a recommendation to the Home Secretary that a direction be issued under section 15 of the Coroners Act.

I said at the outset that this is a tragedy—for the family and for the Pudsey community. It should be brought to a fair and final conclusion.

I therefore think it right to ask my hon. Friend, who is responding to the debate on behalf of the Home Secretary, to accept that he has a duty to allow the west Yorkshire coroner to proceed to an inquest, which would be the proper fulfilment of his professional duty to the public whom he serves with distinction. It would also bring one element of justice, so far denied to the devastated family of Patricia Anne Hall.

10.13 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Nicholas Baker)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Sir G. Shaw) for raising this important and tragic case and I pay tribute to the zeal and persistence with which he has pursued it over several months. It is a case that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and I have considered extremely carefully, because we recognise its importance to the family of Patricia Anne Hall.

Inquests in England and Wales are conducted in accordance with the Coroners Act 1988 and the coroners rules 1984. Coroners are appointed to investigate sudden or unexplained deaths, in the general interest of the community. Their duty to hold an inquest is triggered when a report is made to them that the body of a deceased person is lying within their district and that there is reasonable cause to believe that he or she has died a violent or unnatural death, a sudden death of unknown cause or has died in custody.

What happens if the coroner has reason to believe that a death has occurred in his district in such circumstances that an inquest should be held, but the body has been destroyed or cannot be recovered? That is what the coroner believes in this case. This situation is catered for by section 15 of the Coroners Act, which provides that, in such circumstances, the coroner may report the facts to the Secretary of State, who may, if he considers it desirable to do so, direct either the coroner or another one to hold an inquest into the death.

The disappearance of Patricia Anne Hall was reported to the police by her husband, Keith Hall, on 27 January 1992. No body has ever been found, but, following police investigations, Keith Hall was charged with his wife's murder. During those investigations, Mr. Hall admitted to an undercover policewoman that he had strangled his wife and disposed of her body in an incinerator.

That admission was tape-recorded by the police officer. In the course of a preliminary hearing at the trial, the judge ruled that the taped confession was inadmissible in evidence, as the circumstances in which it was made rendered it potentially unreliable. On 10 March 1994, after hearing the rest of the evidence, the jury acquitted Mr. Hall of his wife's murder. It was part of his case that his wife might still be alive.

Following the trial, on 16 March 1994, Her Majesty's coroner for the eastern district of west Yorkshire reported to the Secretary of State his belief that the death of Patricia Anne Hall had occurred in his district, in such circumstances that an inquest should be held and that owing to the destruction of the body by fire an inquest could not be held except in pursuance of section 15 of the Coroners Act. The application was carefully considered by Home Office officials, acting on behalf of the Secretary of State.

A decision was taken, at official level, not to direct the holding of an inquest and that decision was communicated to the coroner in a letter of 22 July 1994. In that letter it was pointed out that, if the inquest had been opened and adjourned to await the outcome of criminal proceedings, as would probably have happened had Mrs. Hall's body been found before her husband's trial, section 16(7) of the Coroners Act would have required that the finding of the inquest as to the cause of death should not be inconsistent with the outcome of the criminal proceedings.

The view was taken that the same principle must apply to an inquest opened only after the criminal proceedings had been concluded, and that it would have been intolerable if the finding of the inquest had effectively been—although not of course couched in those specific terms—that Mrs. Hall had been murdered by her husband when he had been acquitted of that charge in criminal proceedings.

On 31 August 1994 and 21 November 1994, the coroner wrote asking for the matter to be reconsidered. During the same period, my hon. Friends the Members for Pudsey and for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) and the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle) made representations about the case. Those developments prompted us to look into its implications again. Further legal advice was sought on a number of points and I now propose to outline the major factors that we took into consideration.

I should say straight away that both my right hon. and learned Friend and I can well understand, and have every sympathy with, the desire of Mrs. Hall's family to obtain an official pronouncement of her death, in order not only to be able to register the death and complete their grieving but also, on a more practical level, to sort out her estate. We have also considered all the matters urged on us by the coroner.

As the hon. Member for Pudsey has made clear, one of the matters most strongly urged was that to which I have just referred: the need of the family and the local community to establish that Mrs. Hall is dead and not just a missing person. However, I am advised that that is not what an inquest is for. The general purpose of an inquest is to ensure that sudden deaths are publicly investigated. The specific purposes of an inquest, as stated in rule 36 of the coroners rules, are to ascertain who the deceased was and how, when and where he came by his death. Of course it is necessary, to trigger section 15, for the coroner to believe that a person is dead, and in this case the coroner has made it quite clear that he believes that Mrs. Hall is dead. But it would not be right for my right hon. and learned Friend to exercise his discretion under section 15 for the purpose of simply establishing the fact of her death rather than for the normal purposes of an inquest, which, as I have said, are to determine how, when and where the death occurred.

There is also the possibility of the inquest verdict being inconsistent with the verdict at the trial. That, as I have said, is an aspect on which the Home Office letter of 22 July 1994 to the coroner concentrated.

Having taken further legal advice on this point, we feel that a verdict at an inquest of unlawful killing would not be inconsistent with an acquittal in a criminal trial in every case, as the coroners rules preclude a coroner from naming the person whom he believes to have committed the unlawful killing. However, a verdict of unlawful killing in this instance could contemplate no one but Mr. Hall, since, as we understand it, the wide–ranging and thorough investigations of the police produced no evidence whatsoever to implicate anyone else. Furthermore, the fact that section 16 of the Coroners Act envisages that an inquest once adjourned might not be resumed—in part because all the facts have been ventilated at a criminal trial—is a factor to be weighed in the balance. In considering the desirability of an inquest, account should also be taken of the spirit of the "no inconsistency provisions" of section 16(7).

Another important question that we have had to address is the difficulty of the coroner admitting in evidence at the inquest the disputed tape-recorded confession. A High Court judge has ruled it inadmissible in criminal proceedings. It would, of course, be a matter for a coroner to consider questions of admissibility in accordance with the law, but we are concerned at the possibility of such evidence being admitted at a coroner's inquisition, where safeguards built into the criminal process do not apply. We have also given weight to the fact that there has already been a trial lasting nine days at which all the relevant evidence was ventilated, and which led to the acquittal of the person before the court. We have also considered the undesirability of the same issues being subjected to a second judicial process.

The coroner's reasons for wishing to hold an inquest, and the representations received in support of one from my hon. Friends the Members for Pudsey and for Skipton and Ripon and the hon. Member for Leeds, West have been looked at very carefully, but having considered all the circumstances of the case my right hon. and learned Friend has concluded that it would not be desirable to direct that an inquest be held in this case. He has had particular regard to the consequence of not holding an inquest—the practical difficulty facing Mrs. Hall's family in that they are currently unable to obtain an official pronouncement of her death or to register her death. But this factor does not, in the opinion of my right hon. and learned Friend, outweigh the general undesirability of directing an inquest in the circumstances of the case.

I realise that this is a most unwelcome result for the family. My right hon. and learned Friend and I greatly regret the distress that this decision may cause them.

10.24 pm
Sir Giles Shaw

With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to speak again as my hon. Friend the Minister has allowed time for me to do so.

It goes without saying that what my hon. Friend has now announced as the decision of the Home Secretary— that he will not proceed to direct an inquest—will be received with very great distress indeed. He has, however, made it clear that substantial legal arguments have led to that decision.

I want my hon. Friend the Minister to know that it seems to me to be desirable to allow the coroner for west Yorkshire to examine with care the statement that my hon. Friend has made in giving the decision on this matter. Should he then believe that it is desirable to ensure that he fully understands the reasoning that has now been adduced in this matter, I might apply to my hon. Friend to visit the Home Office for further discussion. I recognise that it would not be easy, if not impossible, to overturn a decision that has been many months overdue, but it might help to determine precisely why, in legal terms, the Home Secretary has arrived at this decision.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty—six minutes past Ten o 'clock.