A coroner is facing legal action after an “irrational” decision to block a journalist from joining an inquest hearing remotely during the pandemic.
Dr George Julian, a reporter covering the death of 13-year-old Samuel Alban-Stanley, was forced into an 11-hour round trip to Maidstone last week after being refused remote access to a pre-inquest hearing.
She has now instructed lawyers Bindmans, in a bid to force the assistant coroner for Kent North East to reverse her stance when Samuel’s full inquest takes place on May 24.
Dr Julian, who lives in Devon, says she would need to take eight trains and two Tube rides to reach the inquest on public transport, involving a five-and-a-half hour journey each way and an overnight stay.
“I just cannot comprehend how it can possible be proportionate or safe to expect me to travel from Devon to Kent to report on a pre-inquest review hearing, or a full inquest for that matter”, she said.
“Why is my safety, as a freelance journalist, of less importance than anyone else’s?”
When the pandemic first struck last year, then-Chief Coroner Mark Lucraft QC issued guidance that coroner’s courts could allow journalists to join hearings via audio links. This was aimed at cutting down the numbers of people in court, when the government’s advice to everyone was to work at home where possible.
The coroner’s court in Kent has embraced the technology for witnesses and lawyers, and used it for both pre-inquest reviews in Samuel’s case.
But it insists an audio link for journalists can only be utilised in “exceptional” circumstances, in spite of the Chief Coroner’s guidance.
Dr Julian instructed lawyers after being told she could not follow Samuel’s full inquest remotely.
The legal letter from Bindmans threatens judicial review, calling the decision “unlawful”, “irrational”, and a possible breach of human rights.
Solicitor Shirin Marker suggests the legal powers of the court have been misunderstood, and argues that ‘exceptional circumstances’ is not a proper decision-making threshold.
“It is concerning that the Assistant Coroner has refused our client remote access to these hearings to date”, she said.
“Media and public access to hearings are a vital element of upholding justice and transparency in our legal system. During the current pandemic, it is essential that journalists and the public are able to access hearings safely.
“We sincerely hope the Assistant Coroner reconsiders her decisions and allows Dr Julian remote access to this important hearing.”
Samuel’s inquest, taking place at the Shepway Centre in Maidstone, is expected to investigate the health, education, and social care support for his family. He received specialist care at school but had to stay at home when the pandemic struck.
The coroner was given until 4pm today to respond to the letter, and asked for further time this afternoon to respond.
The Coroner is understood to be considering the issue and declined to comment when contacted by the Standard.