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By John Helmer, Moscow 

The British government has selected a new team trusted with state secrets to run the inquest into the alleged Novichok death of Dawn Sturgess three years ago.  The appointments of former Court of Appeals judge, Lady Heather Hallett,  and Martin Smith as legal advisor will commence at a court hearing in London on March 30.

Hallett and Smith replace the Wiltshire country coroner David Ridley and his police advisor in the ongoing investigation of what caused Sturgess’s death.  

Hallett has been a specialist judge for  sensitive military, intelligence, and police problems under the direction of the Cabinet Office for many years. The Cabinet Office coordinated all security and police operations before, during, and after the alleged Novichok attack on Sergei Skripal in Salisbury on March 4, 2018.

Smith was involved in the state investigation of the alleged Russian assassination by polonium  poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko on November 1, 2006.  Titled “Solicitor to the Inquiry”, he was acknowledged in the January 2016 report by the chief investigator, Sir Robert Owen.  

The move by Prime Minister Boris Johnson to raise the level of the investigation is likely to secure the Home Office and the security agencies from disclosure of evidence casting doubt on the official story that a Russian assassination squad, on mission to kill Skripal, left behind a bottle of Novichok which ended up in the apartment of Sturgess and her companion, Charles Rowley; they were poisoned at their Amesbury home on June 30, 2018; Sturgess died in nearby Salisbury Hospital on July 8.

London experts on inquests and coronial law say it is not uncommon for “complex and controversial cases” to be moved from local coroners to judges in London. The London lawyers will not comment, however, on the recent record of state security service for Hallett and Smith.

Since Hallett’s retirement from the appeals court bench in 2013, she has worked for the government in an investigation of security and intelligence operations in Northern Ireland;  then of deaths of Iraqi civilians at the hands of the British Army in Iraq —  the Defence Ministry’s Iraqi Fatality Investigations through 2018.   

Left: Baroness Heather Hallett;  right: Martin Smith.

In April 2019 Hallett was appointed by then-Prime Minister Theresa May to be the chairman of the Security Vetting Appeals Panel (SVAP) until 2023.  The Panel describes itself as “an advisory non-departmental public body, sponsored by the Cabinet Office”; its job is to act as “an independent avenue of appeal for individuals in government departments, the armed forces, the police and other organisations, or from those employed by contractors of those departments and organisations, a final means of challenging a decision to refuse or withdraw national security vetting.”  MI5 and MI6 have “have their own separate arrangements” for vetting appeals, SVAP says.

Hallett’s office is on the third floor of the Cabinet Office complex at 70 Whitehall. She was well acquainted with the head of the Cabinet Office, Sir Mark Sedwill, who directed the Novichok case until his retirement in 2020.

Smith is a lawyer at Fieldfisher, an international law firm based in London.  He says he “specialises in public law, regulation, inquests and inquiries, with a particular track record of advising those conducting major public inquiries, inquests and other types of investigation.”     On the Fieldfisher  website, Smith says: “I led our team of solicitors to the Inquest into the death of Diana, Princess of Wales and Dodi Al Fayed, the 7/7 London bombings inquests, the Litvinenko Inquiry and the Baha Mousa Inquiry. I currently act as the Solicitor to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.”

In Sir Robert Owen’s report on the Litvinenko case, he acknowledged that Smith was the senior legal officer in the inquiry.  Smith and Owen concluded that Litvinenko had been the target of assassination by two Russians intending and ordered to poison him with polonium; and that “the FSB [Federal Security Service] operation to kill Mr Litvinenko was probably approved by Mr Patrushev and also by President Putin.” https://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/ — page 246.

The appointment of Hallett was formally announced on March 4; it was also reported at the time that the first hearing of the newly organised inquest would be on March 30. The news of Hallett’s and Smith’s appointments were leaked to the Guardian by lawyers for Sturgess on January 29.  

The principal lawyer for Sturgess and her family is Michael Mansfield QC. He is pursuing a multi-million pound compensation claim against the British Government, arguing that the security services knew in advance of Russian assassination plots in the UK, and had been negligent in their protection of citizens, including Sturgess. Mansfield and his instructing solicitor Irene Nembhard refuse to respond to questions about the case, but they leak information to reporters from the Guardian.

The two lawyers failed to convince David Ridley, the Wiltshire county coroner in Salisbury, to broaden the scope of his investigation so that the inquest findings would expose British government agencies to the follow-up compensation claims. Ridley ruled in December 2019 to restrict the scope of his investigation.   For the full story of the case, read the book.

Mansfield then applied to the High Court for a judicial review. In July 2020 a two-judge panel decided Ridley had made errors of law, and sent the case back to Ridley to resume his inquest proceedings.  “It might seem surprising to members of the public, and certainly to a widow or other bereaved relative,”  the High Court ruled,  “to learn that the question of whether the coronial investigation of her husband’s death should be as broad-ranging as Sir Robert Owen’s proved to be [in the Litvinenko case] or as narrow as Sir James [Eadie for the Home Office] submitted it could have been, or somewhere in between, can depend on the largely unreviewable discretion of the individual coroner appointed to hear the case.”

Ridley should not have so much discretion, the court decided. He was told he wasn’t obliged to conduct “an inquest or public inquiry as broad and as lengthy as in the Litvinenko case” so long as he didn’t stick to “an investigation as narrow as that which he has proposed.” He was also told that the next time round he “should be careful… to avoid using inappropriate legal terminology.” Read the text of the ruling here.  

It took another six months before it was decided in Whitehall not to return the inquest to Ridley, as the High Court had directed. Instead, the news was leaked at the end of January that he had been replaced by Hallett and Smith.

Ridley had accepted without qualification or doubt the government’s allegations of a Russian assassination plot which had ended up killing Sturgess. The High Court also accepted the allegations and did not fault Ridley on the evidence he said he accepted. Nor did the court object to Ridley’s reported conclusion that “there was no risk at the time of the late June 2018 incident that was known or ought to have been known relative to the public at large and I am satisfied that both Ms Sturgess’ and Mr Rowley’s poisoning came as surprise to everyone.” Mansfield had lost his case with Ridley; he didn’t gain at the High Court. Hallett and Smith will listen to him repeating his claims at the end of this month.

The problem for the Cabinet Office and the prime minister was that Ridley was not trusted to preserve the official narrative of the plot and protect the security agencies and police from Mansfield’s campaign to accuse them of negligence and compel their agreement to pay compensation.

Left: Dawn Sturgess; right, Mark Sedwill.

The substitution of Hallett and Smith aims to protect the government’s Novichok story; it also prevents that story turning into a liability case for paying Sturgess’s family. No lawyer dares to say so, and no journalist in the UK is investigating.

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