My complaint about FSNI to Secretary of State

 

I contacted my solicitor, expressed my many concerns, and it was agreed that I should challenge the Report with the Secretary of State at the Northern Ireland Office who was ultimately responsible for overseeing the work of the FSNI. At that time it was the Rt Hon David Hanson MP a Labour MP under Tony Blair. I didn’t expect a lot from him and I certainly wasn’t disappointed.

On 6th August 2005 I wrote a six page submission to him detailing all the faults that I had found with the Report at that time and I included a copy of it including those photographs I had taken and a copy of the Police photographs taken at the scene on the night of the crash to support my case. I still had not received the ones taken by Forensics.
I wrote:
“I wish to complain formally about the lack of accuracy, professionalism, and independence shown by Mr Coll in producing this Report.
I ask you to investigate the circumstances surrounding the production of the FSNI Report and to check its veracity in the light of my notes on it, and then to take whatever action you deem necessary. I would hope that this would include withdrawing the Report in total and making arrangements for a new Report to be prepared by a Forensic Agency unconnected with Forensic Science Northern Ireland.”
He acknowledged my letter but did nothing to investigate its contents. He simply forwarded it to FSNI so that their Chief Executive could reply. There was to be no independent investigation of what were serious allegations.
About 2 weeks later on 23rd August, the Coroner had summoned everyone involved to his Court in Belfast to hear the case. Before the case began I spoke to the civilian witnesses and thanked them for their help, and then I went into the courtroom with my brother to familiarize myself with the layout. I was going to represent the family and other legal representatives were assembling. None of them introduced themselves but one was representing Raymond’s Insurance Company and another may have represented Davis. The rest were unknown to me.
As we waited for the Coroner to arrive, I was aware of someone hovering around obviously trying to attract my attention. It was Mr Coll from FSNI. After introductions, he said that he was sorry about the Report but explained that he had to do something like two to three hundred Reports each year and that he just didn’t have enough time to spend as he would like on each case.
I was greatly relieved that he was aware that his Report was not all it should be and that he was prepared to look at it again. He asked me if I would agree to retire to a side room and discuss my complaints with him and see if we could sort things out. I readily agreed and he said that he would speak to the Coroner and clear it with him.
I worked out that if he worked normal hours in the year, he would have just somewhere between four and six hours to devote to the investigation and writing of each Report. This was clearly a man under pressure at his job and it reflected in his finished work. I warmed to him.
He returned some minutes later and told me that the Coroner had not agreed to that course of action.
The Coroner came into the Court a short time later and invited all the interested parties into his chambers. We followed him through to the meeting. I can’t say who was there but included in the eight or nine present was Inspector Livingstone, Sgt McBride, Mr Coll, some of the legal representatives and the Court Clerk. It was clear that the Coroner was aware of my submission to the Police Ombudsman(to be covered in a later post) and now my concerns about the Forensic Report and he alluded to the fact that some of the evidence was in dispute. He put a series of proposals to the group which included suspending the current hearing. Everyone in the group agreed to them.

He was also very aware that it was it was possibly my intention to initiate a criminal charge against Carson if the Police failed to do so.

He later wrote a letter to Sgt McBride and copied it to the rest, listing his proposals and I reproduce it below.

“I am writing to confirm the basis on which the inquest was adjourned on 23rd August :-
1. You are to obtain a new statement from Mr Lynn in which he sets out in detail (a) his theory as to how the accident occurred and (b) the aspects of Mr Coll’s Report with which he disagrees and his reasons for that.
2. The statement should be forwarded to Mr Coll and Mr Carson the driver of the other vehicle involved.
3. Mr Lynn is to provide me via his solicitor with contact details for the Road Traffic Accident investigator retained by the Legal Expenses Insurers.
4. The solicitor for Allianz is to obtain instructions from her client as to whether it will be willing to provide me with a copy of the Report of their Road Traffic Accident Investigator and confirmation that there would be no objection to Mr Coll receiving a copy.
5. All three Traffic Accident investigators will exchange their Reports and once this has been done Mr Coll will provide me with an addendum to his report dealing with any remaining areas of disagreement or any remaining areas of disagreement or any other issues which may arise. I will provide those with a proper interest in the inquest with a copy of Mr Coll’s addendum.
6. At that stage consideration will be given to a meeting at the scene of the accident should there be any remaining disagreement as to how the accident happened. It would seem sensible that such a meeting should comprise police, all road Traffic Investigators including Mr Coll, legal representatives, Mr Lynn and Mr Davis.
7. Following that I would then arrange to re-convene the inquest hearing.
8. I understand that Mr Lynn has agreed to provide you with a draft of his statement and that you will advise me next week if this has been done.
Yours Sincerely”

It was signed by the Chief Coroner John Leckey who had taken on the case. You will hear a good deal more about Leckey in a later series of posts. Little or none of it will be good.
At the meeting the Police had agreed to close the road for two hours to facilitate a reconstruction but they presumably thought better of it. So far as I know my solicitor fulfilled her requirements. I also did. Even though there were still matters in dispute, the reconstruction at the scene was never staged. I never found out what material was given by the other participants to the Coroner.
It crossed my mind that perhaps it was bad evidential practice to arrange for independent investigators to put their collective heads together to arrive at a conclusion, but at least the case would be re-examined in some form and the matter might be settled so I didn’t object. Again, I was wrong. All it did was to ensure that any evidence I might present to a criminal court would be corrupted. Did the Coroner consider this?
I drafted my statement within a couple of days detailing my concerns about the Police and FSNI investigations and suggesting how the accident might have happened according to the evidence I had in my possession at the time. I put it on a floppy disc and dropped it into the Police station for the attention of Sgt McBride. It ran to eight pages. Sgt McBride called with the typed statement for my signature. I told him that a lot of this could have been avoided if he had taken up my offer of a meeting. He said that no one had told him that I had asked for one and that he would have been happy to have met me. It would have helped to nip the problem in the bud. I showed him my letter to his boss. I found him very pleasant and personable and I got the impression that he was aware that his Report was not all it should be. He regretted that Forensics had not attended on the night but he had asked them and they had refused. He asked if I would change one part of my statement. If I didn’t then it was likely that he would be disciplined. At that time, my only concern was to have the case re-investigated and I didn’t want anyone’s career to be put on the line. I agreed. The original sentence read:
“It seems to me that Sgt McBride arrived at a conclusion and then only recorded the evidence or modified the evidence to agree with the conclusions. Having established a mind model of the accident he became convinced that he was right and made the evidence fit.”
I changed it to:
“I am prepared to accept that this was a case of confirmation bias.”
In truth there was little substantive difference in the two statements as the first sentence simply explained more fully how confirmation bias might have played a part in the preparation of his Report but it seemed to please him.
At the same time I got a reply to my formal complaint to the Secretary of State. It was from the Chief Executive of FSNI Michael Walker. The only fault he accepted was the confusion over “offside” and nearside.” He went on to say that Mr Coll was an able, well qualified and experienced practitioner. His opinion was subject to review by an experienced colleague before release and that the work was carried out in a professional and independent manner.”

The Secretary of State, had arranged for the Chief Executive of the FSNI to investigate his own senior investigator. He in turn passed the investigation to Coll’s colleague who found no fault. It was clear that my views were to count for nothing and Mr Coll’s own concerns were ill founded. How could Hanson accept such injustice? How could the Chief Executive think it was appropriate to have the matter handled by Coll’s colleague?

Clearly the FSNI was able to regain  accreditation by dealing with all complaints against it internally. I suppose any shortfalls reported today are dealt with in a similar fashion. If any rot  continues to run through the organisation from the Chief Executive downwards as in this case then its time to reconsider again their accreditation.
It was time to get a private Accident Investigator of my own whose findings might carry more weight than mine.
On 8th September 2005, I received a letter from the Coroner confirming that he had received my statement. The letter also said that he was arranging for Sgt McBride and Mr Coll to call at his office to consider the documentation I had provided him with.
Why was the Coroner involving himself in dealing with my complaints against the Police and Forensics? The Ombudsman and the Secretary of State were the proper people to do that. Such action was clearly outside his remit and he ran the risk of tarnishing their evidence in any future civil or criminal case by allowing them to collude in his office. How could he listen to their evidence at some future hearing if it could be said that he had been responsible for shaping it? On the one hand, he might just be acting as honest broker trying to resolve a conflict of evidence. On the other, he was interfering in the evidence of those who were meant to be independent professional witnesses. It was my view that it was not part of his remit to do so but if it helped then I wasn’t going to challenge him. I chose to accept that he acted with the best of intentions. Later I would find out how wrong I was. I was not invited to sit in at the meeting and don’t know what took place but If he could persuade the two parties to change their Reports in line with the evidence, I was happy for him to go ahead.
As the history of the case unfolded I think that may have been a bad decision on my part.

The next post will deal with Coll’s second Report after he was cleared by his Chief Executive, colleague and Secretary of State Hanson.

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