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Coroner Michael Burgess resigned from the inquest into the death of Diana, princess of Wales, hours after the government admitted that he had no jurisdiction.
He was carrying out the inquest in his role as “coroner for the Queen’s household” after his predecessor, the late Dr John Burton, had assumed responsibility for the Diana inquest on a false basis.
The department for constitutional affairs (DCA) finally admitted, following a request under the freedom of information act (FOIA) for material relating to the choice of coroner, that Burton made a mistake when he assumed this responsibility.
The false claim of jurisdiction for the coroner for the Queen’s household is crucial because it enables, exceptionally, the jury to be made up entirely of royal staff members. The prospect of such a jury raised questions about the independence of the inquest.
The official reason given for Burgess’s resignation on Friday was his “heavy and constant” workload as the coroner for Surrey.
In his role as Surrey coroner, Burgess was conducting a separate inquest into the death of Dodi Al Fayed, who was buried in his district after dying with Diana in the infamous road crash in Paris in 1997. Burgess also resigned from conducting that inquest on Friday.
He is understood to have complained privately about pressure over his conduct of the two inquests from royal aides, the government and Dodi’s father, Mohamed.
Some six months after receiving the FOIA request, and after granting itself ten extensions to the 20-day statutory limit to supply the material sought, the DCA finally released its reply on Friday making the admission that the royal coroner was carrying out the Diana inquest on a false basis.
Hours later, Burgess announced his resignation from both inquests.
In its reply, the DCA’s head of current coroner policy, Judith Bernstein, says: “The body of Diana, Princess of Wales, was repatriated in the course of the early evening of August 31, 1997 to RAF Northolt in the district of the then West London coroner, the late Dr John Burton.
“Dr Burton arranged for a post-mortem examin-ation to be held at the public mortuary within his West London district at Fulham. The body of Diana, Princess of Wales, was taken after the post-mortem examination to lie in the Chapel Royal, St James’s Palace within the jurisdiction of the coroner for the Queen’s household.
“At that time, Dr Burton understood the body of Diana, Princess of Wales, would be buried in Windsor Castle or its grounds which are also part of the district for the coroner of the Queen’s household.
“However, there is no evidence to support Dr Burton’s understanding, and as Dr Burton is no longer alive, there is no way of clarifying his reasoning on this point. Dr Burton therefore transferred jurisdiction to himself… in his capacity as coroner of the Queen’s household.”
Bernstein adds that Burton, who died in 2004, retired as West London coroner in 2000, but remained as royal coroner until 2002. Burgess, who was already Surrey coroner, took over the role as royal coroner.
The DCA also released a home office circular to coroners from 1983, which sets out the procedure that determines which coroner has jurisdiction for a British citizen who dies a violent, unnatural or sudden death abroad.
It makes clear that the choice of coroner depends on either the body’s point of entry into the UK or where it “lies”.
This suggests that Burton, or his successor, as coroner for the district containing RAF Northolt had a duty to carry out the Diana inquest. In the current circumstances, where this has not happened, the inquest should be carried out by the coroner whose district includes the Althorp estate, where Diana was buried.
The established procedure has flexibility to allow, for example, an inquest to be carried out in the district where the body lies, instead of the point of entry into the UK, to enable it be conducted near where the relatives live. Alternatively, if more than one Briton has died in the same incident, a joint inquest can be carried out in the district where the bodies entered the UK.
Newspapers often wrongly assume that the royal coroner has responsibility because Diana was a member of the royal family. This is wrong because, first, she was no longer a member of the royal family at the time of her death and, second, even if she were, it is not in itself a relevant factor in determining which coroner has jurisdiction.
The royal coroner might, however, have respons-ibility to conduct an inquest where a body lies in his “district”, such as in Windsor Castle, which would generally apply to members of the royal family.
Burgess opened the Diana and Dodi inquests in 2004 and adjourned them to a date to be fixed.
Friday’s resignation of Burgess from those inq-uests comes a month before he was due to receive the report of an investigation by the metropolitan police into Diana's death.
The inquest was expected to be held next year, but may be further delayed as a replacement coroner is found.
Burgess has suggested that the lord chancellor appoint a “senior judicial figure”, such as a retired high court judge, to become his deputy in order to conduct the inquests, although this would also not be in line with the established procedure for selecting a coroner.
Another version of this article first appeared in the Daily Express.