[an error occurred while processing this directive]
CORONERS LAW RESOURCE
R v HER MAJESTYS CORONER FOR THE COUNTY OF ESSEX,
ex parte CHRISTOPHER IAN HOPPER
Queens Bench Divisional Court
Parker LJ, Pill J
13 May 1988
M.N. Levett (instructed by Bates & Partners, Local Agents for Raffan & Lindop) for the Christopher Ian Hopper
Her Majestys Coroner for the County of Essex was not present and was not represented.
LORD JUSTICE PARKER: There is before the court an application for judicial review by the father of Christopher Anthony Hopper, deceased, to bring up and quash the verdict of the Coroner for Essex on an inquest held upon Christopher Anthony Hopper on 4th August 1987. Christopher Hopper was a young man aged 19. He lived at home with his parents, but at the material time they were on holiday in Portugal. He was a young man who was interested in the martial arts. He was familiar with handling guns. He was a happy, successful, well-balanced and humorous youth. He had no financial problems. He was in good health. He had a girlfriend. There is no evidence of any kind of any intention to commit suicide of depression, of anxiety or of any state of mind that would render suicide in the very least likely.
Christopher Hopper died on Tuesday, 10th March 1987. The evidence was that he was sitting in a chair. He was no doubt killed by the fact that a shotgun had been discharged very close indeed to his head. It had penetrated his head in the region of the right ear, just forward of it. The fact that the discharge was very close was amply established by burn marks on his face that were found at the post mortem examination. He had apparently been engaged in doing some ironing. There was a pile of ironing half done and the iron had been left on. The gas fire had also been left on and was alight. Those circumstances suggest that he was not contemplating any suicidal act. He was a meticulous young man who would be unlikely to have left the iron and the fire on if he was proposing to kill himself. It is therefore clear that there is a total absence of any direct evidence of an intention or of a state of mind from which an intention might have followed.
However, there was evidence that the gun which caused his death was a gun which (a) could only be fired if the safety catch had been removed to the off position and, (b) had a trigger which could not lead to a discharge of the weapon by any ordinary accidental means, that is to say, such as dropping the gun or a severe jolt of some kind.
The Coroner, in his summing up, appears to have approached the matter in basically the correct way. He started by dealing with the evidence of character. He apparently said this. I read from the solicitors note of evidence:
The Coroner then indicated that he was not calling any further evidence and, although he had seen the statement of Angela Downs, he was not going to call her, nor did he intend to call any other witnesses. He was of the view that most of the witnesses had made the point that the deceased was a well-balanced young man who had good prospects and no financial worried. He had a normal relationship with his parents and with his friends and girlfriends. He also took that view .
It was submitted that the Coroner might have been influenced had he called Angela Downs, whose statement he had read, and that he should in fact have called her. In my view, the Coroner cannot be criticised for not calling Angela Downs. The evidence was overwhelming to the effect that there was no evidence of any state of mind whatever to indicate suicide.
The Coroner then went on and said this:
The position of the deceased and the fun and the fact that the gun could not have discharged accidentally could only mean one conclusion. The body of the deceased was found in the lounge, slumped in the armchair, the gun base on the ground, the barrel resting on his right leg. It was perfectly evident that the gun had been close to the head when discharged because the damage to the head had shown to be very violent. If the gun had been held at any distance from the head then one would not have expected to see the brain damage and debris. With some guns it is always possible that they could have been discharged by dropping it on the butt.
There was then a comment by the solicitor: The Coroner maintained that he had ascertained that this could not have happened to this gun. There could not have been accidental discharge. That was a conclusion that was amply justified on the evidence.
On the last page of this admirably prepared note, it shows the Coroner saying: I see no other conclusion other than the deceased had killed himself. The Coroner came to that conclusion clearly on the basis that, despite the absence of any intention or any evidence of intention, because the gun could not be discharged accidentally in the sense that it could not be discharged by any jolting, the only conclusion left was suicide. He may readily be forgiven for having come to such a conclusion. However, we were referred by Mr Levett to authorities from which he submitted that the Coroner had erred. I need only refer to one such case, which is R. v. City of London Coroner, Ex parte Barber  1 W.L.R. 1310. That was a case where the deceased had fallen from the roof of a building onto the street. The roof was surrounded by railings and the Coroner excluded the possibility of anything other than suicide.
At page 1312 of the judgment, Lord Widgery L.C.J. said this:
The Court has been supplied with photographs, which are very helpfully descriptive of the roof in question. It is a flat roof. It has most effective rails intended to prevent anyone from accidentally falling off the roof into the street. The rails are such of course that they could easily be climbed by anybody who deliberately wants to cross them, but they are rails which would strike the eye at once as being an effective means of preventing an accidental fall from someone who is on the roof. Not only are there these stout railings, but it is quite evident that for anybody to fall the full length to the street, which was the unhappy lot of the deceased, the body would have to be projected forward some three feet or perhaps more over a ledge on that building which runs along the front just below the rails to which I have referred.
Those facts are of the greatest significance because it would appear that in that case, for the death to have ensued in the way that it did, the deceased would have had to climb the railings and project himself in some way out from the roof so as to clear the ledge below. Thereafter, the Lord Chief Justice deals with the approach of the Coroner and at page 1313 he says this:
but for that evidence, if there had been evidence to the contrary that the deceased had been behaving strangely, he might have reached the conclusion that this was an accident and that the deceased had fallen over the railings in some way as a result of his indulgence in alcohol. But because the widow said that the deceased seemed to be acting normally the coroner ruled out, as I read his conclusions, the suggestion that this was the act of a drunken man accidentally falling over railings, and then seems to have concluded that there was no other explanation of what happened, and accordingly that it must be a matter of suicide.
If that is a fair statement of the coroners approach, and I sincerely hope it is because I have no desire to be unfair to him it seems to me to fail to recognise what is perhaps one of the most important rules that coroners should bear in mind in cases of this class, namely, that suicide must never be presumed. If a person died a violent death, the possibility of suicide may be there for all to see, but it must not be presumed merely because it seems on the face of it to be a likely explanation. Suicide must be proved by evidence, and if it is not proved by evidence, it is the duty of the coroner not to find suicide, but to find an open verdict.
I approach this case, applying a stringent test, and asking myself whether on the evidence which was given in this case any reasonable coroner could have reached the conclusion that the proper answer was suicide. I take the view that no reasonable coroner properly understanding the obligation to prove suicide could have found suicide in this case. There is, as I see it, no single fact which definitely points to the deliberate taking of this mans life and every possibility that the matter was an accident and no more.
It is of great significance that the learned Lord Chief Justice should have reached that conclusion notwithstanding the fact that the death could only have occurred from a climbing of the railings, which could not be other than deliberate, and by projection outwards into the street. It must not be taken that in so stating, the Lord Chief Justice was ruling out verdicts of suicide in any cases where there was an absence of positive evidence of intent of where the only evidence of intent and deliberation is to be inferred from the circumstances. It was conceded by counsel that if a man is found dead in his car with a pipe connecting the exhaust of the car into the interior of the car, it would be perfectly proper for a Coroner to conclude that there was no possible explanation other than suicide. That is not this case. This case, in my view, bears considerable similarity to the case which was under consideration by the Lord Chief Justice. The possibility of suicide was, in this case, there for all to see, but the question which has to be considered is whether other possible explanations were totally ruled out.
In this present case, it is true that this young man was familiar with guns. It is true that the trigger would have to be pulled, but a trigger can be pulled not by a finger, but because, in some unexplained way, it has caught in a piece of clothing or on a piece of furniture. That too may happen because in the course of a normal operation, the person handling the gun may, for example, have lost his balance. It may well be that the possibility was there. It may be that it was probably. It certainly would appear to have been probable in the case which I have cited. However, it appears to me that in this case, the Coroner erred and there was insufficient evidence. It also appears to me that if his attention had been drawn to the facts of the Barber case and the Lord Chief Justices observations, he could not and would not have come to the conclusion which he did. If he had been referred to those matters and had nevertheless come to the same conclusion, his verdict would have been unsustainable.
He approached this matter basically in the right way, but he did not adequately exclude, nor could be adequately have excluded, the possibility that the death had been caused by some unexplained accident. The evidence that there could not have been an accidental discharge went only to the question of an accidental discharge by dropping the gun. It did not exclude an accident of this sort of nature which I have mentioned. Accordingly, I would grant this application and quash the verdict. That means that since this court, as presently constituted, has no power to grant an application under section 6 of the Act for a new inquest to be held we will now, without moving a muscle, reconstitute ourselves. My presence must be taken as that of an observer sitting by courtesy of Pill J., who will sit as a single judge of the High Court, to hear an application under section 6. Doubtless it will be based on the decision of the court, as presently constituted, that the verdict must be quashed. I will therefore invite Mr Levett formally to make his application under section 6 to Pill J.
MR JUSTICE PILL: I agree. The facts and circumstances in this case did not, in my judgment, point irresistibly to the existence of a suicidal intent. The possibility that the discharge of the gun was accidental could not be excluded as a reasonably possibility.
MR LEVETT: In those circumstances, may I refer to page 33 of the large bundle. We have, in the course of our preparation, obtained the leave of the Attorney-General and under the provisions of section 6 of the Coroners Amendment Act and the Coroners Act, would you direct that there should be a fresh inquest on the death of Christopher Anthony Hopper?
MR JUSTICE PILL: I so direct. The Divisional Court have quashed the inquisition held on 4th August 1987. I make an order that a new inquisition be held. It should be held before a different coroner. That should not be taken as a criticism of the coroner who held the inquest, but it would be fairer to all concerned if the new inquest were held before a different coroner.
MR LEVETT: There is one other matter. I am not aware that there is any provision for an application for costs in the present application unless my Lord feels that there should be costs awarded against the Coroner.
LORD JUSTICE PARKER: Are you making this application to the single judge in respect of the section 6 matter or to this court to respect of the judicial review matter?
MR LEVETT: I make it in respect of the judicial review matter.
LORD JUSTICE PARKER: We do not think that this is a proper case in which to award costs against the Coroner.
To Unreported page