MoD seeks ‘ban’ on coroner criticisms

Defence secretary Des Browne has sought a gagging order forbidding coroners criticising the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in military inquests.

The MoD wants to prevent coroners using language that could leave it vulnerable to compensation claims.

Government lawyers yesterday presented papers to the Royal Courts of Justice, seeking a court order that would ban coroners from accusing the MoD of “serious failings”.

Representing Mr Browne, Sarah Moore argued this could be in interpreted as apportioning blame for soldiers’ deaths to the MoD, raising the possibility victims’ families could seek legal redress.

It follows the case of Private Jason Smith, who died of heatstroke in Iraq in 2003.

The inquest into the 32-year-old’s death said it was caused by “a serious failure to recognise and take appropriate steps to address the difficulty that he had in adjusting to the climate”.

Ms Moore argued the phrase “serious failure” is tantamount to deciding civil liability, which is not allowed under the 1984 Coroners’ Rules.

“Serious failings” have been levelled at the MoD in a number of military inquests and a successful court order risks effectively censuring coroners from criticising the department.

Wiltshire coroner David Masters said he would not be “deflected from conducting full, frank and fearless inquiries into deaths they are entrusted to investigate – those of people serving their country when they are killed abroad”.

“If something needs to be said, I’ll say it,” he added.