Coroner warns over material which could prejudice jurors in Noah Donohoe inquest
No material about the disappearance and death of Belfast schoolboy Noah Donohoe which could prejudice potential jurors in inquest proceedings should appear in the public domain, coroner Joe McCrisken has said.
Mr McCrisken also warned the sharing of any material disclosed as part of the coronial process outside of the inquest proceedings may be regarded as a contempt of court.
Noah, 14, was found dead in a storm drain in the city in June 2020 six days after he went missing as he cycled to meet up with friends.
His mother Fiona Donohoe is hoping to secure answers to some of the questions surrounding the death of her son through the inquest process.
The inquest was originally scheduled to take place last year but was then delayed after a ruling from coroner Mr McCrisken that it should proceed with a jury, following an application from Ms Donohoe.
During a pre-inquest review at Laganside Courthouse, the coroner said he had been in contact with the Attorney General’s office about the case.
Counsel for the coroner, Peter Coll KC, raised the issue of ensuring that material evidence and documentation disclosed in the proceedings are “contained within the confines of the inquest at this stage”.
He said: “It is an opportunity at this stage, as we come towards a point where there may be consideration given to listing of this substantive inquest, of the need to ensure that there is a fade factor in the public domain in terms of any potential jurors and to protect the integrity of the evidential process.
“It is really an opportunity for everyone to reflect on the need to ensure that the integrity of the inquest process is given its place.”
Mr McCrisken said: “I would hope there wouldn’t be any disagreement that the undertaking that all of the interested persons have given at this inquest, and indeed in every inquest, is abided by.
“That is that no material disclosed for the purposes of this inquest is disclosed outwith the interested persons or the coroner’s service.
“I take that situation extremely seriously. It is possible that disclosing material outside of the inquest process is a contempt of court.
“Of course, the courts take that very seriously indeed.”
The coroner added: “It is appropriate at this stage also once again to remind the public, media outlets and all interested persons to this inquest that the strict liability rule set out by the Contempt of Court Act 1981 applies to these proceedings.
“These are active proceedings and have been since January 2021.
“For any publication – that is on social media, mainstream media, a television programme, speech or writing – which seriously impedes or prejudices or creates a substantial risk that the course of justice will be seriously impeded or prejudiced, will be potentially in breach of the strict liability rule and therefore a contempt of court.
“This is an inquest which is to be held with a jury and it is therefore all the more important that nothing is publicised which might prejudice any potential jurors.
“I have been involved in communicating with the Attorney General’s office over the last number of months about this issue and the Attorney General’s office is aware of issues around this inquest and any adverse impact on the rule of law and the administration of justice.”
The hearing was also updated on the disclosure process and the timetabling for the full inquest.
A barrister for Ms Donohoe told the court that the family preferred a date in September 2024.
The next review hearing will take place on November 30.