The millionaire father of Dodi Fayed won a court battle Friday to have a jury take part in the British inquest into the deaths of Princess Diana and his son.
Three senior judges at London's High Court overturned a decision by the deputy royal coroner that she would sit alone — without a jury — in determining what caused the deaths of the pair in an August 1997 car crash in Paris.
Lawyers for Mohamed al Fayed, owner of the iconic Harrods department store, challenged Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss's decision to sit alone, arguing that this would give the appearance of impropriety. Al Fayed's legal team had pressed the judge to call a jury, saying it was the only way the public would be satisfied that proper care was taken over the issues surrounding the crash.
"It is our view, as a matter of law, Lady Butler Sloss's decision not to summon a jury was wrong and must be quashed," the judges said in a written ruling.
Photos: Remembering Diana
Al Fayed described the decision as a step forward, but warned that he would continue his fight if the jury were not shown all the evidence surrounding the deaths.
"This is not the end of the road, but an important step. The jury must now be allowed to hear the entirety of the evidence, but I fear there will be attempts to keep it from them. If so, that will be yet another battle I will have to fight," he told media assembled outside the courthouse.
Al Fayed has always claimed that the death of his son and Princess Diana was the result of a conspiracy engineered by the British establishment, and "masterminded" by Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh. Philip has not publicly commented on the accusation.
The millionaire argued that having Baroness Butler-Sloss weigh the inquest evidence by herself, without a jury of "ordinary citizens", would amount to a continuation of that "conspiracy," reports CBS News correspondent Richard Roth.
While the High Court has now given him the jury he wanted, Roth says the decision doesn't add any weight at all to his conspiracy claim. The scope of the inquest has not been decided yet; it's still unclear whether there will be any formal investigation of al Fayed's dramatic claims.
Instead, the High Court ruling was based on a narrow legal basis: a provision in the law that requires a coroner to call a jury if the case involves circumstances that might — in the future — harm public health or safety.
Making that connection, the court pointed out: "It is well known that people in the public eye (including by way of a recent example, Miss Kate Middleton, Prince William's friend) are often stalked by photographers." The court looked to the pursuit of celebrities by paparazzi as a possible "danger (that) could be prevented by legislation or other means," and, in that context, said the evidence ought to be heard by a jury.
During a hearing earlier this month, the lawyer for Paris' Ritz Hotel — owned by al Fayed and site of some of the couple's final moments — argued that because Butler-Sloss had been the deputy coroner of the Queen's Household, there would be the perception that she "lacked independence" to assess the allegation that Diana and Fayed had been murdered.
The appearance of independence and impartiality was important "when the death under investigation is the death of a royal princess, mother of a future king, in controversial circumstances, and where royal princes and the royal princess' sister are interested persons," said Michael Beloff, the Ritz lawyer.
The judges also agreed with this argument, ruling that Butler-Sloss shed her royal role for the case, and assume the title of deputy coroner for Surrey before holding the inquest. They said they personally did not question her impartiality, but that it was about the appearance of a bias.
Butler-Sloss is a former judge and member of the House of Lords who had wanted to sit alone because she believed a jury would find it difficult to cope with the volume and detail of the evidence. The inquest will delve into technical matters on the crash, creating a video simulation and expert testimony.
A jury, who will ultimately determine the cause of the deaths, will now have to be formed before the inquest begins.
The inquests could begin only after the investigations into the August 1997 deaths of Diana and Fayed was complete. A two-year French investigation, a three-year London Metropolitan Police inquiry, and repeated legal action by al Fayed have delayed the inquest by nearly 10 years.