Week two of the inquest into the terrorist attack carried out by Usman Khan at Fishmongers Hall in London in November 2019 ended last Friday. This is an update by CEP Senior Advisor Ian Acheson of the main events as reported by the U.K. media and using information from the transcripts of the inquest. There will continue to be an explanation of various aspects of the inquest process that an international audience may be unfamiliar with. A summary of week one is available here.
Why is the inquest being held at London’s Guildhall?
The inquest was originally scheduled to be heard at the Central Criminal Court of England and Wales (commonly referred to as the Old Bailey). However, due to constraints on space because of social distancing during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the inquest is now taking place in London’s Guildhall. Members of the public are allowed to observe the inquest.
How is legal representation organised?
In this inquest, due to the size and complexity of the proceedings, the Coroner has counsel to support him. These legally qualified people assist the Coroner where there are large numbers of ‘Interested parties’. An Interested Party is someone who has the right to actively participate in the inquest proceedings, whether by virtue of relationship to the deceased, involvement in the circumstances of the death, or at the discretion of the Coroner. In the Khan inquest, there are also complex issues relating to national security and the admissibility of sensitive information including security intelligence. In this sense, Counsel to the Inquest (CTI) act as additional ‘brainpower’ for the Coroner.
The families of Saskia Jones and Jack Merritt, who were fatally stabbed in Khan’s attack, also have legal representation—their own barristers who are able to ask witnesses questions. In addition, many of the agencies and organisations that provide witnesses will also provide their own counsel to offer legal assistance so you can see that proceedings are already highly complex. There is controversy in this area in the U.K. as legal representation is not automatically free or subsidised by the state. This can lead to situations where, for example, the parents of a bereaved child who died in a hospital are unable to pay for legal representation in an inquest where the institution, potentially liable, has access to unlimited public funds to protect its position. This results in complaints that there is not ‘equality of arms’ in a hearing that might disadvantage an injured party. In this case however, both the families of the victims of Usman Khan have legal representation as does his family.
What is an ‘Article 2’ compliant inquest and is this taking place?
The Coroner has a duty to enhance the scope and the scale of an inquest into deaths where they are persuaded there is an argument that the state or its agents have 'failed to protect the deceased against a human threat or other risks’ which is contrary to Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Counsel for Saskia Jones and Jack Merritt have both argued that this is the case, but the Coroner is not yet persuaded that there is enough evidence to justify that sort of approach. Broadly speaking, an Article 2 compliant inquest would allow the jury to look not only at how a person died but at the how that person came to die, including, if applicable, detailed conclusions on the failure of people, processes, and organisations. The Coroner has said he will keep ‘an open mind’ about making this an Article 2 inquest and has the freedom to change the format from the current more limited factual enquiry at any time before he asks the jury for their conclusion at the end of the evidence.
What are the key issues raised in week 2 of the inquest?
- Usman Khan was denied clearance to attend a Learning Together event in Cambridge earlier on in his period of release from prison under supervision. He sent a video of support to the organisers praising the organisation, which allows prisoners and students to study together as part of a rehabilitation process. He stated, ‘what was different about Learning Together was breaking the barriers, accepting people for who they are.’ He went on, ‘There has to be an understanding. Learning Together is working together for the betterment of us all. It was also Learning Together - it was kind of family ... It is making a difference, and I cannot stress that enough.’ Weeks later, having been given permission to attend another event at Fishmongers Hall, he stabbed to death two Learning Together student activists.
- The operational lead for Learning Together, Dr Amy Ludlow stated in her evidence that the organisation did not prepare risk assessments for prison-based courses including the course that Khan attended where he met at least one of his future victims, Jack Merritt. Dr Ludlow also stated that there was no risk assessment carried out by the organisation on the fatal Fishmonger Hall event, because there was ‘no requirement to do so.’
- A prison Chaplain at HMP Whitemoor who worked with Khan on a victim awareness course just prior to his release said he was, ‘surprised’ that there was intelligence that Khan intended to commit an attack when he was released. He said, ‘If that intelligence is correct, he was obviously presenting himself in a way that was likely to deceive the likes of myself and others.’ Referring to his statement where he has previously said that he did not think Khan was a threat without the benefit of this knowledge, he added: ‘I'm open to say I am wrong, and it is possible I have been conned.’
- Khan was designated a ‘High Risk’ Category A prisoner up until his release from prison custody. Nick Armstrong, Counsel for one of his victims, Jack Merritt, described him as being in the top 0.1% of the prison population in terms of risk.
- Both Dr Ludlow and Dr Armstrong, who gave evidence as the co-founder of Learning Together and the lead on research stated that they were unaware of specific intelligence that was generated before Khan’s release and during his time on the Learning Together course in prison that he was ‘radicalising’ and ‘bullying’ other prisoners. Dr Armstrong stated that the organisation had, ‘absolutely no indication of any concerns.’ She went on to say in relation to intelligence on Khan, ‘if we had, we of course would have made different decisions.’
The Inquest continues.