Court Says 'Yes' to Princess Diana Inquest

Friday, March 2nd 2007, 6:37 am
By: News On 6

LONDON (AP) _ Mohamed al Fayed won a court battle Friday to have a jury take part in the British inquest into the deaths of Princess Diana and his son, Dodi Fayed.

Three senior judges at London's High Court overturned a decision by the deputy royal coroner that she would sit alone _ without a jury _ in determining what caused the deaths of the pair in an August 1997 car crash in Paris.

Lawyers for Mohamed al Fayed challenged Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss's decision to sit alone, arguing that this would give the appearance of impropriety. Al Fayed's legal team had pressed the judge to call a jury, saying it was the only way the public would be satisfied that proper care was taken over the issues surrounding the crash.

``It is our view, as a matter of law, Lady Butler Sloss's decision not to summon a jury was wrong and must be quashed,'' the judges said in a written ruling.

Al Fayed described the decision as a step forward, but warned that he would continue his fight if the jury were not shown all the evidence surrounding the deaths.

``This is not the end of the road, but an important step. The jury must now be allowed to hear the entirety of the evidence, but I fear there will be attempts to keep it from them. If so, that will be yet another battle I will have to fight,'' he told media assembled outside the courthouse.

During a hearing earlier this month, the lawyer for Paris' Ritz Hotel _ owned by al Fayed and site of some of the couple's final moments _ argued that because Butler-Sloss had been the deputy coroner of the Queen's Household, there would be the perception that she ``lacked independence'' to assess the allegation that Diana and Fayed had been murdered.

The appearance of independence and impartiality was important ``when the death under investigation is the death of a royal princess, mother of a future king, in controversial circumstances, and where royal princes and the royal princess' sister are interested persons,'' said Michael Beloff, the Ritz lawyer.

The judges agreed, ruling that Butler-Sloss shed her royal role for the case, and assume the title of deputy coroner for Surrey before holding the inquest. They said they personally did not question her impartiality, but that it was about the appearance of a bias.

Al Fayed has long argued that Queen Elizabeth II's husband, Prince Philip, was responsible for ordering the pair murdered. Philip has not publicly commented on the accusation.

Butler-Sloss is a former judge and member of the House of Lords who had wanted to sit alone because she believed a jury would find it difficult to cope with the volume and detail of the evidence. The inquest will delve into technical matters on the crash, creating a video simulation and expert testimony.

Butler-Sloss has not yet determined the scope of the inquest, and a jury, who will ultimately determine the cause of the deaths, will have to be formed, before the inquest begins.

The inquests could begin only after the investigations into the August 1997 deaths of Diana and Fayed was complete. A two-year French investigation, a three-year Metropolitan Police inquiry in Britain and repeated legal action by al Fayed have delayed the inquest by nearly 10 years.