The chairman of the inquiry into Stafford Hospital has overturned an order he made banning the press from parts of the hearing after a challenge from lawyers representing Wolverhampton’s Express and Star newspaper.
Robert Francis QC – who is overseeing the investigation into Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust – originally imposed the reporting restriction on 23 November following a request from Tom Kark QC, counsel to the inquiry.
Kark had argued some of the evidence which would be given by a witness could prejudice an ongoing criminal investigation and possible trial.
The inquiry is investigating failings at the hospital following a Healthcare Commission report last year which found “appalling standards” of care led to 400 more deaths than should have been expected between 2005 and 2008.
Witness Janet Robinson was to testify about the death of her 20-year-old son John Moore-Robinson who died in after 2006 after doctors failed to notice he had suffered a ruptured spleen in a mountain bike accident.
Kark had argued that reporting restrictions were necessary because while there had been an inquest into Moore-Robinson’s death, police were now conducting a criminal investigation.
Publishing the relevant part of Robinson’s evidence could affect that investigation and any future trial, he added.
Shaun Lintern, health correspondent for the Wolverhampton-based Express and Star, argued the order was unnecessary as much of what Robinson would be saying about an attempt to cover up allegations of negligence in her son’s case was already in the public domain.
In addition, it could not be argued that there was any risk of prejudice to criminal proceedings, as there were no active proceedings at present.
After Francis made the order, solicitor Nigel Hanson of law firm Foot Anstey, acting for the newspaper, wrote to him challenging the order on the grounds that he had taken the wrong factors into account.
Hanson argued that fears that Robinson’s evidence might have an effect on any possible was not one of the factors specified in the legal act relied upon to invoke the reporting ban.
Concerns about any possible prejudice to the criminal investigation – where proceedings were not even active under the Contempt of Court Act 1981 – were insubstantial, speculative and merely fanciful, he added.
The order was also contrary to the aims of the inquiry, which was intended to allay public concern – restrictions had to be confined within the narrow jurisdiction defined by the statute, Hanson claimed.
Francis lifted the order on 29 November, saying that he had consulted the police, and showed them the evidence that Robinson had given.
“The police indicated to the inquiry that disclosure of the evidence that had been given would not, in their opinion, prejudice their investigation, although they expressed anxiety that what they described as insensitive, injudicious or inappropriate reporting by the media might impinge on rights to a fair trial should proceedings be commenced in the future,” he said.
“They accepted, however, that the Contempt of Court Act does not apply as there are no active proceedings.
“I have never suggested that the Act does apply. The discretion I have under the Inquiries Act is different and exercisable in entirely different circumstances.”
But he had concluded that in all the circumstances there was no longer a case for maintaining the restriction order.
Police concerns about the effect on their investigation had been withdrawn, and their concerns about the manner in which the matter might be reported was not one which should be put into the balance at all, he added.
The evidence Robinson gave in the secret hearing was placed on the inquiry’s website – and led to the Express and Star reporting that solicitor Stuart Knowles, now an Assistant Coroner for South Staffordshire, had, while working at Stafford Hospital, changed a consultant’s report on Moore-Robinson’s death which was written for the Coroner to remove suggestions of negligence in his treatment on the grounds that the Coroner was “not particularly interested” in negligence allegations.