by John Helmer, Moscow
Baroness Heather Hallett (lead image, left), the second British state coroner responsible for investigating the cause of Dawn Sturgess’s death on July 8, 2018, revealed in a London court on Friday that she has resigned after less than a year in the coroner’s post.
Sturgess died in Salisbury District Hospital four months after Sergei and Yulia Skripal were allegedly attacked by Russian military agents carrying the nerve agent Novichok; the Skripals recovered but have subsequently been held incommunicado.
Hallett’s appointment was announced in March 2021, after the Wiltshire county coroner David Ridley was removed; he had lasted thirty-three months in charge. Hallett has already announced on the inquest website her conclusion before hearing the evidence. “The post mortem indicated the cause of her death was Novichok poisoning,” the website declares on its home page. In fact and in British law, the post-mortem evidence has not done this.
Ridley was replaced by Hallett when he refused to allow testimony and evidence, and refused to rule that the cause of Sturgess’s death had come from Russia in the form of an assassination plot to poison Sergei Skripal, the Russian double or triple agent. Ridley also refused to release the medical and pathological evidence; and concealed the cremation certificate he had himself signed on the cause of Sturgess’s death.
In a prepared script Hallett took into court and read out on February 25, she said “in late December last year, I accepted a request made by the Prime Minister to become the chair of the Covid Inquiry. Because of the demands of that role, it was agreed that another judge would be appointed to chair the Sturgess Inquiry.”
The timing is inaccurate. Hallett’s appointment was announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson in a statement to parliament on December 15. The negotiations for Hallett’s new post began days, possibly weeks before. No agreement was reached then, nor publicly announced, for Hallett to resign from the Sturgess proceeding, and for another judge to be appointed in her place. That came later.
By resigning, by concealing this for two months, and by falsifying her circumstances in court, Hallett appears to have been unwilling to take personal responsibility for directing her investigation to reach the outcome the British government requires. That is the conviction of the Russian military command, the Kremlin, and President Vladimir Putin himself for making the Novichok; for ordering a group of soldiers to use it in Salisbury in March 2018; and for leaving behind the bottle of Novichok which Sturgess allegedly used to perfume herself, with fatal effect.
In the 35-minute hearing Hallett chaired on Friday, the retired Court of Appeal judge also revealed that after more than two months the British Government has been unable to name another judge willing to replace Hallett and do what she was told to do. That’s to say, no judge has agreed to take the job, yet.
The transcript of the latest court hearing has been released by Hallett’s office and can be read in full here. The statement Hallett which drafted in advance, and which was released to the press as she was speaking, can be read here.
The words “post-mortem”, “Russia”, “Novichok”, and “Skripal” were not mentioned in the hearing and do not appear in the transcript.
The background of Hallett’s appointment and her earlier court statements and orders, along with those of the lawyers advising her, can be read by clicking to open this link.
Hallett had closed Friday’s proceeding to most courtroom participants. “Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I decided that it was necessary for this hearing to be held as a partially remote hearing and, given the likely brevity of the hearing, that also steamed [sic] to be a course most convenient to many of those involved.” The medical precaution was not directed by Hallett at her two pre-inquest reviews (PIRs) on March 30 and September 22, 2021, when pandemic conditions in London were worse than last week.
December 15, 2021 – Prime Minister Johnson leaves Downing Street for the House of Commons where he announced the Covid-19 inquiry in response to a threatened rebellion from his Conservative Party majority over his mismanagement of the pandemic.
According to Hallett, “in late December last year, I accepted a request from the Prime Minister to become the chair of the Covid Inquiry. Because of the demands of that role, it was agreed that another judge would be appointed to chair the Sturgess inquiry. In discussions at that time I emphasised the need to avoid any delay to the Sturgess Inquiry, and my understanding then was that the appointment of a new judge would not interrupt or slow down the setting up of the new inquiry.”
The timing of the prime minister’s appointment on December 15 indicates that the negotiations for Hallett’s new post must have begun began days, possibly weeks before. Exactly how long is not clear since Hallett was publicly in charge of the Sturgess proceeding on November 17, when she signed a letter to the Home Secretary (the British interior minister) saying: “I will be delighted to Chair the Inquiry, providing arrangements are made for me to retain the services of my existing legal team.” On December 10 Hallett received submissions she had ordered from her legal team in preparation for the new hearing she planned to chair on December 17; for more detail, read this.
That hearing date was moved to February 24, and then rescheduled to the day after, last Friday.
In the meantime, between December 17 and December 24, the sole-source contract which Hallett endorsed for the government to pay the fees of her legal advisers was authorised and published. Headed by Martin Smith, a longstanding associate of Hallett’s, the London law firm of the Field Fisher Waterhouse is to be paid £1 million pounds per annum for two years, 2022 and 2023, to work on the Sturgess proceeding. So far in the court papers, just three of the firm’s employees have been identified at work – Smith, a Field Fisher partner; a lower ranking solicitor; and a paralegal. Hallett, who has become a freelance consultant since her retirement from the bench, has not disclosed the contract for her payment.
At the announcement of Hallett’s Covid inquiry appointment, it was also said there would be several additional members of the Covid inquiry panel she would chair. Hallett did not say at the time, nor was there any announcement from the Sturgess team assisting her that she could not or would not preside over both proceedings in parallel. As a High Court and Court of Appeal judge, sitting alone, Hallett had done this routinely for almost 25 years. Moreover, she had continued as a judge while at the same time directing high-profile public inquiries into the London terrorist acts known as the 7/7 London bombings of 2005; Northern Ireland security and intelligence operations; and British Army killings of Iraqi civilians.
In her latest profile in Wikipedia, Hallett has erased the record of her role as coroner in the Sturgess Novichok case. The correction appears to have been made on December 15.
Last Friday Hallett claimed for the first time that the Novichok and Covid inquiries were too burdensome for her at once. Hallett appears to have taken almost three months to reveal this. London lawyers doubt it. A source close to the case comments: “She found it too hot to handle, or others thought she didn’t have the right stuff.”
The outcome in Friday’s hearing were statements of disappointment from Hallett and her lawyers at the continuing delay. The lawyers representing the Sturgess family added “a degree of frustration,” in Hallett’s words.
Ben Watson QC, a lawyer representing the Home Office (the British interior and security ministry), told the court that the process of selecting the new judge was under way inside the ministry, but Watson did not explain the delay. The lawyer did acknowledge that Hallett’s exit and the lack of a successor had not made any difference to the investigative work required for the proceeding to commence hearing evidence. “The ongoing work on the ground has in respect of that disclosure process been unaffected by the absence of your successor,” Watson said, implying that the work Hallett claims to be burdensome for herself is nothing of the sort for the staff.
The Home Office also told Hallett “the appointment [of the replacement judge] is to be made in the very near future and, as it is said, certainly within the next 14 days.”
Wiltshire county coroner Ridley, who began his work within hours of Sturgess’s death and who signed her still secret and contentious cremation authorization, did not doubt police allegations of Novichok in his sole ruling in the case, issued on December 20, 2019.
However, Ridley stopped short of issuing his conclusion on the post-mortem evidence. Instead, he was replaced after lawyers for Sturgess won a High Court ruling to open a new hearing on whether the government should pay several million pounds in compensation to Sturgess’s family and her companion, Charles Rowley. To substantiate this money claim, the lawyers argued that the Russian government was behind the Novichok plot, and the British secret services had been derelict in their duty to detect and stop it. The Home Office refuses to settle the claim out of court. It says the Russians were responsible for the Novichok attacks on the Skripals and on Sturgess, but insists the security services aren’t liable to pay compensation.
In the months since Hallett replaced Ridley, she decided the evidence for the money claim was too secret to be heard and tested in open court, as the coroner’s statute requires. She then agreed to convert the coroner’s inquest into a public inquiry which does allow evidence in secret. Hallett has now opted out of that.
Michael Mansfield QC, the chief lawyer (right) for the Sturgess family and Rowley, remains focused on the money and the postponement of his payday. Last Friday, Mansfield tried to emphasize the Russian culpability for Novichok, on which his compensation case depends. The delay caused by Hallett’s withdrawal, he said, “not only relates to the personal circumstances of the family but, as of today, possibly yesterday, there is an poignancy about what is happening in eastern Europe and Ukraine at this very moment for the urgency and also the necessity of this inquiry not losing a single day.”
What Mansfield meant by the “personal circumstances of the family” included his legal fees. He wanted to know, he told Hallett, when her successor will decide “the designation of funding and the legal representation of the core participants.” Hallett and her lawyers have already decided that “core participants” in the proceeding include the family members and Rowley. They exclude the two alleged targets of the Novichok – Sergei Skripal, and his daughter Yulia.