The wheels of justice can turn painfully slowly for the families of those who lose their loved ones in aircraft disasters, as demonstrated again by the four year gap between the Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max 8 crash in March 2019 and the start of the inquest on 10 July 2023. Senior Coroner Penelope Schofield has today ruled that the three British people on board were unlawfully killed.

More than 157 people lost their lives in the Boeing crash shortly after take-off, and the families of the three British citizens who were on board had called for a verdict of unlawful killing. The inquest was held in Horsham, West Sussex, as was the long-awaited inquest following the Shoreham Airshow disaster.

In 2022, Sarah Stewart and the Stewarts team acted for families of the victims of the disaster in 2015. A Hawker Hunter aircraft performing in the air show crashed to the ground and burst into flames; 11 people lost their lives and a further 13 were injured. Those affected were not attendees of the show, but regular commuters on the A27 and secondary spectators that were watching from outside the designated viewing area.

The inquest concluded that the 11 men had been unlawfully killed despite the pilot not having been found guilty by the criminal court. The High Court subsequently refused the pilot permission for a judicial review, and he declined to ask the court to review their decision.


How does the court reach a verdict of unlawful killing?

As a result of a Supreme Court ruling on 13 November 2020, all conclusions in coronial inquests are now to be decided on the civil standard of proof, ie the balance of probabilities. A conclusion of unlawful killing may be reached when the coroner or jury is satisfied that the requisite elements of a homicide offence (murder, manslaughter, or infanticide) are made out on the balance of probabilities, so that it is more likely than not.

In practical terms therefore, bereaved families can seek justice through the coronial process in instances where criminal proceedings have not been pursued or where the criminal court did not return a guilty verdict. Unlawful killing verdicts nonetheless remain extremely uncommon; in 2022, less than 1% of inquests resulted in a finding of unlawful killing.

However, we are slowly starting to see examples of such cases. In the Shoreham inquest, Senior Coroner Schofield concluded that eleven innocent men were unlawfully killed as a result of woefully inadequate planning, organisation and preparation, and by the actions/inactions of the pilot. The coroner has now reached an unlawful killing verdict in the case of Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max 8.


What would a verdict of unlawful killing mean?

Although inquest conclusions cannot be framed in such a way as to appear to determine any question of criminal liability on the part of a named person, this is often made obvious. Unlawful killing conclusions do not result in criminal punishment but they can bring closure and a sense of justice to the families, attract significant media attention and even lead to reputational damage. Therefore, in instances where the families feel that the criminal system has failed, inquests can represent a new shot at justice.

Paralegal Victoria Lee Domenech contributed to this article.



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