Coroner famed for Diana inquest retires

by Melanie Hall
AFTER a varied career that has included presiding over the inquests of Princess Diana and the young son of singer Eric Clapton, Surrey’s coroner is calling it a day. Michael Burgess, who sits at Woking Coroner’s Court and has dealt with some of the most high-profile inquests in Britain, is retiring at the end of this month after 25 years in the post. Mr Burgess, 65, who acted as a deputy coroner for seven years prior to his appointment in 1986, has dealt with hundreds of inquests during his career, but it is those of Princess Diana and Dodi Al Fayed for which he is best known. The coroner handled those inquests for nine years, but he famously withdrew from the cases after blaming a ‘heavy and constant’ workload for his decision. Recalling his time on the Princess Diana and Al Fayed inquests and the media storm that surrounded them, he said: “On occasions it proved personally very difficult, with them [the media] arriving outside my home, and we needed the police on several occasions to get in.” Mr Burgess explained that while those inquests were ongoing, he still had to deal with others at the same time. “The thing about the high profile cases is that they do detract from all the other cases, not just for me but for my deputies and officers too,” he said. “We need to give each inquest all the attention we can at the time, so we don’t really want to be spending too much time on one in particular. It might take time but it’s not the only case. “As far as Princess Diana and Al Fayed are concerned, I ran the cases for nine years until the summer of 2006 and it became very clear that there were some insoluble problems.” Being a coroner brings with it a host of expectations from the public, said Mr Burgess, expectations that he then has to remove. “I think the hardest part is explaining that you don’t make the sorts of judgements that some people would like me to make,” he said. “I don’t condemn people, it’s not a trial in the way in which you see on TV. “No one is found guilty at the end of the day.” He explained that the function of the coroner is limited to finding specific answers to four questions, namely who has died, how, when and where. “People often want me to add a fifth one, that someone is to blame for someone’s death, but we don’t do that and we never have,” he said. Looking over how the work of a coroner has changed in the last 10 years, father-ofthree Mr Burgess, who is also a grandfather, said the biggest difference is people’s expectations – and TV shows are one of the causes. “TV shows like NCIS suggest that certainty is easy to get,” he said. “Whereas that’s not the case and even scientifically there’s very often an element of uncertainty. “When I watch these shows, I think, ‘How unlike the real coroner’. “Also, there’s a general expectation that the medical profession can cure most things and when they don’t cure it, they are at fault. “There’s an expectation that elderly people may be kept in good health, totally ignoring the fact that they are ageing and on occasions one has to explain to families that the end of the road has been reached. “They say, ‘mum may have been 95, but she wasn’t ready to die then’. “Everyone is going to die at some point.” Mr Burgess originally trained as a solicitor, before being asked to act as coroner in 1979 at the age of 33 when the incumbent coroner went on holiday and the deputy was unwell. He has remained a coroner ever since. These days, his Surrey office deals with 4,400 cases every year, with Mr Burgess making the final decisions. However, Mr Burgess’s days as a coroner are not completely behind him, as he will continue to sit on some cases in the region, as well as remaining as the coroner of the Queen’s Household, not to mention advising the minister for justice on coroner reform. On the inquest process, he added: “The feedback from families tends to be that it is a cathartic process. “If you have achieved at least part of that, then it’s been a job well done, I think.”

Surrey Coroner Michael Burgess retires this month after 25 years in the job. Picture: Grahame Larter. (Ref: WK1118323-8)

Duke supports 14th science festival
THE Duke of Kent and a Big Brother contestant are the unlikely pair who will be handing out prizes at a Surrey science festival next week. The SATRO Science and Engineering Festival, now in its 14th year, is being held on June 22, and will be opened by celebrity guest Jon Tickle, best known for his appearances on Brainiac and Big Brother, but who is also a physics graduate. The aim of the festival is to promote the STEM subjects, science, technology, engineering and maths as a career, to help tackle the shortage of quality engineers in the UK which is expected to worsen over the coming years. However, this upcoming festival was almost cancelled when council budget cuts created a funding shortfall for the organisers, charity Surrey SATRO (Science and Technology Regional Organisation). The festival was saved when Redhill recruitment consultancy CBSbutler stumped up £10,000, as well as sponsored two cash prize competitions on the day. David Leyshon, managing director of CBSbutler, said: “Engineering jobs are among the hardest to fill in the UK, with estimates by the Engineering and Technology Board that the UK needs 60,000 engineers over the next six years to plug the skills gap. “It is crucial therefore that more is done to encourage our young people into engineering and technical careers and that’s why we are very pleased to be involved in such a worthwhile project.” The festival is being held at Brooklands Museum in Weybridge, in association with CBSbutler, and teams from schools and colleges will have the opportunity to showcase and win prizes for high quality science and engineering projects devised and built during the current academic year. The festival will also feature the CBSbutler Working World Marquee which will showcase local STEM businesses and organisations where students will be able to talk to real scientists and engineers about their jobs. Exhibitors include Surrey Space Centre and SSTL (Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd), where students will be able to find out more about designing space hardware and how to get into the industry. Another exhibitor will be the Institute for Animal Health (IAH), based in Pirbright. The IAH will be illustrating how combating virus diseases involves input from across the sciences by discussing their recent successful defeat of the bluetongue virus – a killer of sheep. Students will be able to take a look down their microscopes to learn more about their work, which involves contributions from areas as wide-ranging as molecular biology to mathematical modelling. The SATRO charity has existed for more than 20 years as an organisation that brings together educational establishments to enhance young people’s understanding of business, science and technology.

Man admits drunken town centre assault
A MAN who head-butted a stranger in Guildford town centre after drinking heavily on a night out was sentenced at South West Surrey Magistrates’ Court last Wednesday. Christopher Brown, 33, of Baird Drive in Wood Street Village, pleaded guilty to assaulting another man in Guildford High Street on April 21. Sue Marshall, prosecuting, said the victim and his friend were walking up the High Street from the Star public house when two women asked them for directions to bar Fahrenheit 55. Ms Marshall said: “They gave directions to the young ladies, then the defendant approached. According to Ms Marshall, Brown, a selfemployed gas engineer, was ‘intent on starting trouble’ who asked the victim’s friend if he was lost. “The victim replied ‘no, it was not us that needed directions, it was them’,” she said. “Mr Brown crouched down, jumped up and the top of his head connected with the victim’s chin, which caused bruising and bleeding. “He said, ‘sorry, I slipped,’ but an independent witness saw it and said it looked quite deliberate and the apology was quite clearly said in a sarcastic tone and no accident at all.” When interviewed by the police, Brown repeatedly denied the charge and maintained he had tripped and fallen on the victim who was ‘in some shock’. John Evans, defending, said: “As far as the offence is concerned, Mr Brown was out with friends that evening. “The two ladies he and his friend were with had walked behind them and he saw them engaged in conversation with two men, which he stopped to find out what about.” Mr Evans said his client had entered a guilty plea on reflection as he had been drinking quite heavily. “His recollection is not quite clear, he accepts he was guilty of the offence,” said Mr Evans. Barry Nelson, the chairman of the magistrates, said: “Although only short, the incident was particularly unpleasant and unnecessary. “As I am sure you agree, it is serious enough to make a community order.” Brown was ordered to pay £100 in compensation to his victim, £87 in court costs and he was given a community order that lasts for six months, with a six-month supervision order. Mr Nelson told Brown: “I should make it clear you are required to co-operate with the probation service fully and failure to do so will mean you are back in court.”