The Queen (on the application of Medihani) v HM Coroner for Inner South District of Greater London  EWHC 1104 Summary
The High Court of England and Wales held that the decision of the District Coroner to close down an inquest into the death of a teenager was unreasonable and unlawful. This error of law resulted from the Coroner’s failure to consider the obligations of the Metropolitan Police under article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the right to life.
In June 2008, the deceased Arsema Dawitt was murdered by Thomas Nugesse, a man seven years her senior with whom she shared a relationship.
From April 2008, Nugesse had begun to exhibit a pattern of jealous and violent behaviour towards Dawitt. Specifically, Nugesse had assaulted Dawitt and had made threats to kill her.
On 30 April 2008, Dawitt and her mother attended the local police station to report their concerns about Nugesse. Dawitt’s mother informed the police that Nugesse had told her that he would “sort out” her daughter and “kill her”. A report was taken and a list of actions prepared, but very little eventuated.
On 2 June 2008, Nugesse followed Dawitt home from school and into the flats where she lived. She was later found stabbed. Nugesse admitted the killing, subsequently attempted suicide and suffered serious brain damage. As a result, he was found unfit to plead and an indefinite hospital order imposed upon him.
The Coroner therefore decided against any resumption of an inquest into the death of Arsema Dawitt. Mrs Dawitt made a complaint against the Metropolitan Police. A report published in November 2009 found that the police had acted appropriately.
In July 2010 the Coroner explained her decision in relation to the inquest, stating that “while there were failures in the way the police dealt with the allegation … there was nothing they knew or ought to have known of a real risk to Miss Dawitt’s life”. Arsema Dawitt’s mother challenged this decision on the basis that it was unreasonable and unlawful.
Justice Silber found that the Coroner’s conclusion that the information before her did not establish an arguable case that the Metropolitan Police had breached its duty to protect the life of Dawitt pursuant to article 2 of the Convention was indeed unreasonable.
Article 2 provides that “everyone’s right to life shall be protected by law. No one shall be deprived of his life intentionally”. In Osman v United Kingdom (2000) 39 EHRR 244, the European Court of Human Rights expanded this duty to include a positive obligation on States to take “preventative operational measures” to protect any individual whose life is at risk from the criminal acts of another. The Court in Osman clarified this to mean that this should not “impose an impossible or disproportionate burden on the authorities”.
Adopting Lord Bingham’s test in Van Colle v Chief Constable of the Hertfordshire Police  1 AC 225, Justice Silber argued that what had to be established was “a real and immediate risk” to Dawitt’s life. This meant ascertaining what the Metropolitan Police “ought to have known” in the circumstances. His Honour preferred Lord Bingham’s interpretation of that phrase, namely that the question was what the authorities “ought to have appreciated on the information available to them”, rather than Lord Phillips’s interpretation, namely what would have been made apparent to them had they acquired information upon carrying out their duties with the appropriate due diligence.
Applying these principles, Justice Silber found that the police could and should have made further inquiries regarding Nugesse’s conduct towards Dawitt. His Honour highlighted the age difference between the two as being of particular concern. For Justice Silber, the Metropolitan Police could have taken measures to avoid Dawitt’s death and so the Coroner was not entitled to conclude against there being sufficient cause to resume the inquest. Accordingly, his Honour ordered a new inquest to be held as soon as possible.
Medihani indicates the degree to which UK courts are willing to uphold Convention rights, even where this has the potential to impose high standards upon public authorities. Here, the responsibility of the Metropolitan Police was to actively investigate and pursue the Dawitt matter and where they fell short in so doing, the resulting inquest should not have been suppressed.
Section 9 of the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities mirrors article 2 of the European Convention. While the right to life has not been afforded extensive judicial treatment, a coronial investigation in 2010 (Coronial Investigation of 29 Level Crossing Deaths – Ruling on the Interpretation of Clause 7(1) of Schedule 1 of the Coroners Act 2008 (Vic)) observed that where the government is responsible for providing appropriate safety measures, the Coroner is obliged to conduct an inquest investigating not only the immediate circumstances of any death but also “the possibility of systemic failure on the part of the authorities to protect life”. This is a reflection of the Osman and Medihani approaches. Nonetheless, the degree to which the individual case may impact upon the scope of a public authority’s duty to protect life should be kept in mind.
The decision is available online at: http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Admin/2012/1104.html
Ingrid Weinberg is a Law Graduate in the King & Wood Mallesons Human Rights Law Group.