SALISBURY’S coroner must widen the scope of an inquest into the death of Novichok victim Dawn Sturgess but does not have to investigate “Russian state responsibility”, judges have ruled.
Relatives of Ms Sturgess had taken High Court action in a bid to get “key questions” asked.
Two judges on Friday ruled partly in their favour.
Lord Justice Bean and Mr Justice Lewis, who considered the case at a recent virtual High Court hearing, said David Ridley, the senior coroner for Wiltshire, had wrongly narrowed what issues he would consider.
But they said international law did not require him to investigate the actions of a foreign state.
Ms Sturgess, 44, died in hospital in Salisbury, Wiltshire, in July 2018 after collapsing at her partner Charlie Rowley’s home in Amesbury.
Judges heard Ms Sturgess was exposed to the same military-grade nerve agent believed to have been used in an attempted assassination of former agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury in March 2018.
A barrister representing relatives said the question of who was responsible for the use of Novichok was a matter of “almost unparalleled public concern”.
Michael Mansfield QC told two judges an act of “state terrorism” could not be “artificially truncated”.
He said the coroner had decided he would not consider whether any Russian state agents other than the suspects – Russian military intelligence agents known as Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov – were responsible for Ms Sturgess’s death or consider issues relating to the source of the Novichok.
He said that meant the inquest would not investigate “credible allegations” that other Russian state agents were involved or “key questions” about how the operation was arranged.
Relatives challenged Mr Ridley’s decisions on two grounds.
They said, in their first ground, that his decision not to investigate “other Russian officials” was irrational and said he was wrong to decide that conclusions “as to the responsibility of Russian officials or agents” could not be reached.
They said, in their second ground, that he was wrong to conclude he was not required to investigate “the issue of Russian state responsibility” and “the source of the Novichok”.
Judges allowed the relatives’ claim on the first ground but dismissed their claim on the second ground.
They said: “There is acute and obvious public concern not merely at the prima facie evidence that an attempt was made on British soil by Russian agents to assassinate Mr Skripal and that it led to the death of Ms Sturgess but also at the fact that it involved the use of a prohibited nerve agent exposing the population of Salisbury and Amesbury to lethal risk.
“There has been, and (to be realistic) there will be, no criminal trial in which the details of how this appalling event came to occur can be publicly examined.”
They said Mr Ridley’s reasoning could not “properly justify an investigation as narrow as that which he has proposed”.
Judges said the second ground of the relatives’ claim, relating to Russian state responsibility, centred on provisions on the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.
“The issue in this case is whether a state where a death has occurred is required by Article 2 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms to carry out an investigation into the actions of agents of a foreign state who may be responsible for the death,” they said.
“In our judgment, the procedural obligation imposed on a state by Article 2 of the Convention is intended to ensure that a state is held accountable for breaches for which it is or its own agents are responsible.
“It is not intended to impose an obligation on a state to investigate the actions of a foreign state which may have caused or contributed to a death.
“Article 2 of the Convention does not, therefore, impose an obligation on the United Kingdom to carry out an investigation of the actions of agents of a foreign state, Russia, in the present circumstances.”