Court grants permission for a legal challenge to coroner’s refusal to hold a full inquest into murdered woman failed by Sussex Police
Posted on 6th January 2020
The family of a woman murdered by a double killer have been given permission to proceed in a crowdfunded judicial review challenge of the refusal by the Senior Coroner for West Sussex to hold a full inquest into her death.
Susan Nicholson was murdered in 2011 by her partner Robert Trigg. Her family believe Sussex Police should have realised Susan’s life was in danger because of Trigg’s increasing violence towards Susan, coupled with his history of domestic violence towards other women and the fact that another partner, Caroline Devlin, had died in bed with him in 2006. Susan’s family believe that the police should have taken steps to protect her in light of this knowledge. They have launched a legal challenge for a full ‘Article 2’ inquest into her death which would investigate police failings.
Despite the objections of Sussex Police and Robert Trigg, the court has now granted permission for Susan’s parents to continue with the challenge. This means that there will be a final hearing in March 2020. However Sussex Police have said that they will pursue the family for their legal costs if the challenge is unsuccessful. Their bill is over £6,000 so far, which is significantly higher than the money that the family have raised so far by crowdfunding.
Sussex Police were called to Susan’s flat six times in the weeks before her death following reports of violence. Sussex Police were aware that Trigg had a long history of violence against women, including against Susan. They were also aware of Caroline Devlin’s death. The family argue Sussex Police breached Susan’s rights under Article 2 of the Human Rights Act, the right to life by failing to act.
Trigg was convicted of the murder of Susan and the manslaughter of Caroline Devlin in July 2017 and sentenced to 25 years in prison. The trial followed six years of fighting by Susan’s parents for a proper investigation into her death.
The original inquest into Susan’s death had concluded that it was an accidental death. After Trigg’s conviction the High Court quashed the original inquest and ordered a new one, but the West Sussex Senior Coroner has ruled that the fresh inquest will only be a short one, and will not look at police failings, because she does not believe it is arguable that Sussex Police breached Susan’s right to life by failing to protect her from Trigg.
What is an Article 2 inquest?
An inquest is a legal inquiry into the cause of and circumstances surrounding a death. Inquests are limited to a ‘fact-finding’ role and they do not seek to determine civil or criminal responsibility for a death. They are presided over by a Coroner, who can have a legal or medical background. There may also be a jury.
If an inquest hearing is held, a Coroner will consider witness evidence and sometimes expert evidence as well.
Article 2 of the European Convention of Human Rights states that “everyone’s right to life shall be protected by law”. It includes exemptions to this right, such as where a person has killed someone while acting in self-defence.
Article 2 also includes the requirement on the State to take appropriate steps to safeguard a person’s life where there is a “real and immediate risk” to that person and that risk is known to the State.
Where there is a question as to whether a State body (e.g. the police, a hospital, a prison) did enough to safeguard a life, an enhanced inquest should be held. This is commonly called an ‘Article 2 inquest’. It is wider in scope than a normal inquest and can look more broadly at the circumstances surrounding the person’s death.
Why is an Article 2 inquest important?
Susan’s family – her sons (Joe and Marc) and her parents (Peter and Elizabeth) – want a full ‘Article 2’ inquest to look at whether the police could have prevented Susan’s death so that women in her position better protected in the future. The Senior Coroner wants to hold a short inquest that will not look at these broader questions.
What has happened in the judicial review challenge?
Susan’s parents have brought a legal challenge to argue that a full ‘Article 2’ inquest ought to be held into Susan’s death.
Sussex Police had said they were neutral but have now argued to the court that the judicial review should not go ahead. They have also indicated that they will claim their legal costs from Susan’s parents should they not succeed after the hearing. This bill so far is over £6,000.
Robert Trigg himself has also joined in. He has argued to the court that Sussex Police did their job properly and the challenge should be dismissed. However, he argues that the fresh inquest should look again at whether he was responsible for Susan’s death, even though the proper channel for this argument would be to appeal his criminal conviction.
The court has now granted permission for Susan’s parents to continue with the challenge. This means the case will progress to a final hearing in March 2020.
Now that permission has been granted however, Susan’s parents are at real risk of having to pay the police’s costs if they lose following the hearing. Susan’s parents have tried to raise money by crowdfunding, but the police costs are already significantly higher than the money they have raised so far.
It is hugely disappointing for Susan’s family that Sussex Police are fighting their challenge to the Coroner’s decision, and threatened Susan’s elderly parents with a large bill for their legal costs in doing so.
The family is calling for help to continue their judicial review proceedings by raising funds at https://www.crowdjustice.com/case/justice-for-susan