A coroner with quest for justice
Article and image published 25th March 2010 by JOSH LOEB of The West End Extra
Westminster Coroner Dr Paul Knapman retires next week
RECENT battles between Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s regime and rebel fighters have brought back memories for Westminster Coroner Dr Paul Knapman.
The 66-year-old can well recall the events of 1984 when the Libyan embassy in St James’s Square was besieged by armed police after its staff opened fire on anti-Gaddafi protesters, injuring others and killing Yvonne Fletcher, 25, a police constable monitoring the demonstration.
Dr Knapman, who retires on March 31, was responsible for the inquest into the PC’s death – one of over 15,000 such hearings he has presided over in his 31 years of service.
Inquests are legal inquiries into violent or unusual deaths. They have been a feature of English society since the office of the coroner was created by Richard I in 1197.
Terrible incidents Dr Knapman has investigated have included the Clapham rail crash (1987), Iranian embassy siege (1980) and the Marchioness disaster (1989).
As deputy coroner he was involved in the inquest into the death of Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian dissident and BBC journalist killed in 1978 with a ricin pellet believed to have been administered by a KGB umbrella.
He sat through the three-day hearing dealing with the death of Lord Lucan’s nanny Sandra Rivett in 1974.
“It’s a fascinating job,” he says. “Each morning you know that you are going to have so many different cases to deal with, tragic though they may be.”
The post of Westminster Coroner, considered the top job in the field, has had just seven incumbents since the Battle of Waterloo.
“When I started it was not possible to put a telephone call through to me in my office and we had no photocopier,” he said.
“We had no fax. Letters were written on an Empire typewriter with carbon paper in rooms that were so smoky you couldn’t see the other end of them because all policemen seemed to smoke in those days.”
Dr Knapman, who trained at King’s College London and St George’s Medical School, said that inquests have since become more complex and are now attended by “a lot more lawyers”. Case loads have also increased. He said: “I am apprehensive for the future of the coroner’s service and the ability of coroners to give people justice unless resources are increased and not decreased.”
Dr Knapman’s proximity to his office in Horseferry Road – he lives in Chelsea which falls under the jurisdiction of Westminster Coroner’s Court – has aided him, and his commitment to his work has led him to explore every inch of his locale.
“I know the names of most roads in the area,” he said.
“I certainly know every dangerous crossroad. I know every tall building.
“I know where the crack cocaine dens are. I often walk through council estates and through hospitals and mental health units just to see if somebody stops me. It’s quite interesting.”
When barrister Mark Saunders was killed by police marksmen, Dr Knapman was on the scene within half an hour of the story breaking.
“I saw large numbers of police [they later turned out to be 56 in number],” he said, “which is where I got the facts and figures.
“If there is a big fire I go to the scene.
“Because it only takes me 10 minutes to come into work, I sometimes come in on Saturday mornings. It’s lovely and quiet.
“Who else comes in on a Saturday morning these days?”
Coroners are important to our society because they are independent, he said.
If they find fault with an institution or system they can make recommendations that can force people to sit up and take notice.
They can also sometimes put paid to feverish speculation.
Dr Knapman remembers how at the time of the Libyan embassy crisis some in the media claimed that the bullet that killed Yvonne Fletcher had been fired from a helicopter.
Another theory held that she had been shot by the CIA as part of an American plot to turn Britain against Gaddafi.
However, the inquest pinpointed the precise window in the embassy that the bullet had come from.
After retiring Dr Knapman plans to continue in another area of public service or charity work.
His replacement as coroner will be Dr Fiona Wilcox.