R (on the application of Leeson) v His Majesty’s Area Coroner for Manchester South  EWHC 62
Paula Leeson was married to Donald McPherson. In 2017, whilst the couple were in holiday, she drowned in a relatively shallow swimming pool. Mr McPherson was prosecuted for Paula’s murder based on the existence of blunt force injuries to her body that were identified at post-mortem. The prosecution also relied on the fact that Mr McPherson was the beneficiary of life and travel insurance policies to the tune of about £3.5 million upon Paula’s death. After a submission of no case to answer by the Defence, the trial collapsed in 2021.
An inquest touching upon Paula’s death was resumed after the collapsed criminal proceedings. A narrow issue- based scope was set, focussing predominantly on the events that occurred on the day that Paula died, as relevant to the question of ‘how’ she came by her death, pursuant to section 5(1) of the Coroner’s and Justice Act 2009. The Coroner excluded the circumstantial evidence, including the insurance policy issue, from scope.
Paula’s father Willy Leeson challenged the Coroner’s decision as to scope on the basis that it was irrational and unlawful.
On Wednesday 18 January 2023, in a unanimous 3-judge court, led by Dingemans LJ and including the Chief Coroner, the High Court quashed the Coroner’s ruling on scope. In doing so Dingemans LJ reiterated the fact that a Coroner must ensure that relevant facts are subjected to public scrutiny, particularly if there is evidence of foul play and that whilst scope is a matter within the Coroner’s discretion, it does not need to be restricted to the last link in the chain of causation. The court relied on the cases of R v North Humberside Coroner ex parte Jamieson  QB 1 at 26, R(Sreedharan) v HM Coroner for the County of Greater Manchester  EWCA Civ 181;  Med LR 89 at paragraph 18, and Coroner for the Birmingham Inquests v Hambleton and others  EWCA Civ 2081;  1 WLR 3417 at 32, and 46-48 in support of these propositions.
The case has been remitted to the Coroner to revisit the ruling on scope in light of the judgment.
It can be difficult sometimes to determine which issues might properly fall within the question of ‘how’ a person came by their death as opposed to ‘why’. The question of ‘why’ not being within the four statutory questions that an inquest must consider. Motives for an alleged unlawful killing might fall within the ‘why’ and not the ‘how’, but in this case the High Court felt otherwise.
Article by Emma Zeb
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