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Newspaper overturns hospital inquiry secrecy order

A regional daily has successfully challenged a ruling banning the press from parts of the inquiry into standards of care at Stafford Hospital.

The inquiry is investigating past failings at the hospital following a Healthcare Commission report last year which found there “appalling standards” of care led to 400 more deaths than should have been expected between 2005 and 2008.

Inquiry chairman Robert Francis QC had imposed the order under section 19 of the Inquiries Act 2005 on 23 November, after lawyers argued that some of the evidence which would be given by a witness could prejudice a current criminal investigation and a possible trial.

However Mr Francis has now overturned his own order after lawyers acting for the Express and Star launched a successful challenge.

The initial secrecy order surrounded the evidence of Mrs Janet Robinson, whose 20-year-old son John Moore-Robinson died in after 2006 after doctors failed to notice that he had suffered a ruptured spleen in a mountain bike accident.

Counsel for the inquiry Tom Kark QC said the reporting restriction was necessary because while there had been an inquest into Mr Moore-Robinson’s death, police were now conducting a criminal investigation into events surrounding the death, and publishing the relevant part of Ms Robinson’s evidence could affect that investigation and any future trial.

Express and Star health correspondent Shaun Lintern, who was also acting for a number of media organisations at the hearing, had argued that the order was unnecessary as much of what Mrs Robinson would be saying about an attempt to cover-up allegations of negligence in her son’s case was already in the public domain.

After Mr 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.

Section 19 of the Act allows for the press and public to be barred from all or part of a hearing, but says that before making an order the chairman must consider a number of issues.

Mr Hanson argued that fears that Mrs Robinson’s evidence might have an effect on a trial which might take place as the result of a criminal inquiry which was currently being conducted by police was not one of the factors specified in the Act.

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 said.

It was an inappropriate factor to take into account – it was not the type of “harm” contemplated by section 19, which referred only to death or injury, damage to national security or international relations, damage to the economic interests of the UK or of any part of it, and damage caused by disclosure of commercially sensitive information.

Mr Francis lifted the order last week, saying that he had consulted the police, and showed them the evidence that Mrs 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.