The Sarah Everard Inquiry: should it be statutory?

Written 3rd March 2022 by Alex Preston

Today is the first anniversary of the murder of Sarah Everard.  A year ago, she was kidnapped and murdered by a serving police officer, Wayne Couzens.  The case attracted widespread public outrage, not just because it highlighted the ongoing failure of police to protect women, but because Couzens actively perpetrated  violence against women.

Other police failures

2021 was a grim year for such failures by the police.  Two Metropolitan Police officers admitted misconduct in a public office after taking photos of the bodies of the murdered women Nicole Smallman and her sister Bibaa Henry. Another officer was convicted and jailed for the strangling of his partner to death. Multiple police officers were disciplined and sometimes convicted of sexual offences – some even lost their jobs over it.  Some of these officers attempted to explain their actions by referencing a culture of ‘banter’.  All of this points to a need to have a complete rethink of police culture.

The Home Secretary Priti Patel announced a public Inquiry to investigate matters in March 2021. It will be chaired by Dame Elish Angiolini, the former Solicitor General for Scotland who has led several investigations and inquiries, including a review of deaths in police custody ordered by Theresa May. She is a very well respected lawyer.

Terms of reference for the Inquiry

The scope of the Inquiry – known as the ‘terms of reference’ – is arguably too narrow; indeed, it is being challenged as such in a judicial review lodged by lawyers at the Centre for Women’s Justice. The decision on this is yet to be made by the High Court.

Presently, phase 1 of the Inquiry will look at the Wayne Couzens case; and phase 2 will involve “consideration of what further, broader issues arise for policing and protection of women”.

But will the Inquiry have teeth?  Arguably not, unless it is put on a statutory basis like other inquiries, such as the Grenfell Fire Inquiry and the Manchester Arena Inquiry.

What is a statutory public inquiry?

A statutory public inquiry is one established under section 1 of the Inquiries Act 2005 and provides that:

a minister may cause an inquiry to be held under this Act in relation to a case where it appears to him that a} particular events have caused, or are capable of causing, public concern, or b} there is public concern that particular events have occurred

So what difference would a statutory inquiry make?

Most importantly perhaps, it will entitle the family of Sarah Everard to proper state funded legal representation.   Additionally, the Inquiry chair would have greater powers to obtain documents and to compel witnesses to give evidence.  And when an inquiry is looking at an organisation with a long history of secretive and (arguably) corrupt practices, those statutory powers are what is necessary.   Statutory inquiries – because they have stronger powers – inspire more public confidence. And confidence has taken a severe knocking over the past year, because of a litany of failures on the part of the police.  Doesn’t the present Home Secretary want to tackle that? She may have her hand forced on this yet.

Written by Alex Preston

Alex specialises in serious crime, inquests and inquiries. She was appointed an Assistant Coroner sitting part time in Manchester (North) in October 2018. This judicial post has given her practical and invaluable experience. She has used her experience in criminal litigation to build a considerable practice in the coroners courts, representing individuals who are involved in differing capacities in inquests. She has represented police doctors following deaths in custody, custody staff within custody suites where those deaths have occurred, detention officers involved in deportations as well as families of the deceased. She has particular expertise in representing those either who have faced criminal investigation or who may face criminal investigation following an inquest. She has extensive experience of representing employees of private security companies in that context through IOPC investigations, police investigations, the criminal courts and inquests. Her inquest practice has expanded in to public inquiry work. She has represented parties involved in the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse and also the Manchester Arena Inquiry, following the bombing in May 2017.

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