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By John Helmer, Moscow 

For more than three centuries the judges of the United Kingdom’s courts have struggled to preserve their independence from the monarch and the government, and thus their power to rule on the truth before them, not the lies presented by the ruling powers.  

When giving public lectures, optimistic, pensioned, and Scottish judges speak of “tensions with the executive [as] an inevitable part of the relationship with the executive”. Some of them claim that since 2003 the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice are constitutionally powerful enough on their own to protect the independence of the judges working below them.  

In the case of who attacked Sergei Skripal in the middle of England on March 4, 2018, they aren’t and they haven’t. The evidence of this will be on display in the Royal Courts of Justice on Tuesday.

That is when a retired judge and commercial consultant named Baroness Hallett (lead image) will convene the first hearing of a new inquest into the death of Dawn Sturgess. Sturgess died on July 8, 2018, allegedly after ingesting a lethal dose of the nerve agent Novichok from a false perfume bottle her partner had presented to her after finding it in circumstances he has yet to explain with certainty.  

The British Government alleges that two Russian government agents were responsible for the attack on Skripal; they “are now also the prime suspects in the case of Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley too. There is no other line of inquiry beyond this. And the police have today formally linked the attack on the Skripals and the events in Amesbury – such that it now forms one investigation… Our own analysis, together with yesterday’s report from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, has confirmed that the exact same chemical nerve agent was used in both cases. There is no evidence to suggest that Dawn and Charlie may have been deliberately targeted, but rather were victims of the reckless disposal of this agent.” That was then-Prime Minister Theresa May in a speech to the House of Commons on September 5, 2018.

Eighteen months later, police and prosecutors have issued no formal indictment for Sturgess’s death. The coroner’s court inquest into the cause of her death has been repeatedly postponed; it begins again on March 30.  Hallett has replaced David Ridley, the county coroner in charge of the inquest until now, for reasons which were decided by government officials in secret.  Until the secret becomes public knowledge, the independence of the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice is in doubt. Hallett knows the secret; the way she conducts the inquest will reveal it.    

In the Sturgess case Hallett has appointed Martin Smith as her chief assistant, the official solicitor to the inquest.  When they wish to speak to the public and press, they have appointed Bernadette Caffarey. She says Hallett “does require some help in contacting the press to alert them of the upcoming hearing… A coroner can choose to seek assistance from anyone they feel has the right expertise to assist them.”

Smith has been employed by Hallett in a major political inquest before. Caffarey currently works for Smith; she is paid her salary by the Home Office. In her last two jobs she was paid by the Home Office, the government ministry overseeing the judiciary and police, and by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). She is a state mouthpiece.

Hallett’s role was announced officially on March 4. The appearance of judicial independence is in the first line: “The Lord Chief Justice, after consultation with the Lord Chancellor, has nominated the former Lady Justice of Appeal, Lady Heather Hallett under schedule 10 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 to conduct the coroner investigation and inquest in to the death of Dawn Sturgess.”

Hallett was given her title and seat in the House of Lords by Prime Minister May on her exit from office, replaced by Boris Johnson, in July 2019. A barrister by profession, Hallett was the daughter of a borough police officer in the northeast of England.   After retiring as a judge, she has worked for Red Lion Consulting (RLConsulting), a group selling private “expertise to law firms, governments, NGOs and corporations.” Among the RL consultants there are also police officers in retirement, including Simon Foy, a former Metropolitan Police homicide division commander, and Sir Mark Rowley, a special operations and counter-terrorism commander. Mark Guthrie, another of the RL consultants, describes himself as an expert on Russian election interference in the US.  

Hallett’s government jobs have included investigator of state security and intelligence operations in Northern Ireland in 2014, and of the deaths of Iraqi civilians at the hands of the British Army in Iraq through 2018; and since April 2019, the chairmanship of the Security Vetting Appeals Panel (SVAP).  The Panel describes itself as “an advisory non-departmental public body, sponsored by the Cabinet Office.”   For more details, read this.

Hallett’s business office is at Red Lion Court. Her government office is on the third floor of 70 Whitehall; this is the Cabinet Office, operational headquarters of the British government and its national security command. Below her office are the Cabinet Office Meeting Rooms; acronymically and in the press they are known as COBRA. This is where ministers, intelligence agency chiefs, military and police commanders met following the July 7, 2005, London terrorist bombings which killed 52 people; also known as the 7/7 attacks.  Hallett was appointed to run the  inquest for the victims of that attack in 2009; she employed Smith as her chief legal investigator. COBRA is also where in 2018 the Novichok operations of police, military and intelligence agencies around the Skripal and Sturgess incidents were directed.  

Hallett ran the 7/7 inquest between January 2010 and May 2011; Smith says he “led the team of solicitors” under her. They reported to the Home Secretary at the time, Theresa May, and to the head of MI5, the domestic security service.  No jury reviewed the evidence or reported its findings. Hallett’s judgement was an exclusive one. She dismissed widespread public speculation of foreknowledge, entrapment, or conspiracy on the part of the security and intelligence agencies, or COBRA. “Had there been a conspiracy falsely to implicate any of the four in the murder plot, as some have suggested,” she judged, “it would have been of such massive proportions as to be simply unthinkable in a democratic country.” 

Source: https://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/
In Theresa May’s report to parliament after Hallett completed the inquest findings, she said: “Lady Justice Hallett has found that the deaths of the 52 victims of this atrocity could not have been prevented. In her concluding remarks she said that ‘the evidence I have heard does not justify the conclusion that any failings on the part of any organisation or individual caused or contributed to any of the deaths.’”    

Together, Hallett and Smith exonerated government officials from allegations of negligence and culpability. According to the coroner’s report, “it is important to emphasise that  much of [the evidence] was not known to the police and the Security Service before 7/7, and could not have been known to them. I should add that the bereaved families represented before me accepted, rightly, that the evidence called disclosed no failings by the Security Service [MI5] that could properly be reflected in the verdicts as a contributory cause of the deaths…I should also make it clear that there is no suggestion by anyone before me, and there is simply no evidence at all, that the Security Service knew of, and therefore failed to prevent, the bombings on 7/7.”

In the Sturgess case so far, it is this issue of foreknowledge, negligence and culpability at the COBRA level which the lawyers for the Sturgess family have been arguing in their case for Home Office compensation.   In her report on the 7/7 case, Hallett admitted she had been misled by intelligence agency officials. “in 2010, I was addressed on the basis that a statutory body had conducted, effectively, the very exercise upon which I was being asked to embark. I then discovered that the statutory body, the ISC [Intelligence and Security Committee], may have been inadvertently misled and thus that its reports may not have sufficiently addressed some of the central issues before it… my concern remains. I express my expectation, therefore, that consideration will be given to whether procedures can be improved to ensure the accuracy and completeness of information provided by the Security Service [MI5] to the ISC.”

The expenditure account of the Hallett-Smith inquest records that of the £4.6 million spent, half, £2.3 million, was paid for “external legal services”. How much Hallett and Smith received for their compensation is not revealed.  

Smith’s business at the law firm Fieldfisher is selling advice to “public officials and regulators on the proper exercise of their powers, as well as private sector organisations on how to challenge the decision-making of public bodies.”Smith was appointed by the government to be Solicitor to Sir Robert Owen’s investigation of the cause of Alexander Litvinenko’s death in London in 2006. Smith helped draft these conclusions at the end of Owen’s report, issued in January 2016: “When Mr Lugovoy poisoned Mr Litvinenko, it is probable that he did so under the direction of the FSB. I would add that I regard that as a strong probability. I have found that Mr Kovtun also took part in the poisoning. I conclude therefore that he was also acting under FSB direction, possibly indirectly through Mr Lugovoy but probably to his knowledge…The FSB operation to kill Mr Litvinenko was probably approved by Mr Patrushev and also by President Putin.”

Caffarey has been working at the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) since it was established by the Home Office in 2015. She works there for Smith, the solicitor to the inquiry, and for the inquiry chairman, Alexis Jay. Before that her only employment, according Caffarey’s published resume, was with the BBC and a BBC radio project entitled CSV Action.

Left: Martin Smith. Right: Bernadette Caffarey at the front door of the Prime Ministry, and at the Attorney-General’s Office.  

Caffarey was asked to clarify how she comes to be the spokesman for Hallett’s and Smith’s new inquest.  “I am employed by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse,” she replied, “but am also assisting the Sturgess Inquest on an informal basis comms-wise.” Asked to clarify this, she added: “Lady Hallett does not need full time press office assistance at this stage of the proceedings, but does require some help in contacting the press to alert them of the upcoming hearing.  Therefore Mr Smith asked me to provide this help given my experience of doing so for this Inquiry. A coroner can choose to seek assistance from anyone they feel has the right expertise to assist them.”

Just three media have reported Hallett’s appointment – the BBC, Guardian, and the Salisbury Journal; all three published five weeks before the appointment became official. The BBC report of January 29 was repeated by the Salisbury Journal.   The Guardian report was more plainly a leak from either Caffarey or from lawyers for the Sturgess family because it revealed Smith’s appointment. Caffarey refuses to say if she provided the information.   

The BBC’s role in promoting the government’s narrative of the Novichok case can be followed here.

The legal significance of Hallett’s and Smith’s roles in the new inquest can be read by clicking.

The first indication of government rigging of the inquest will be Hallett’s decision on whether to call Sergei and Yulia Skripal to testify. As for what has happened to them, read the book

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