Princes call for swift conclusion to Diana inquest

Princes William and Harry called tonight for a swift conclusion to the inquest into their mother's death as they learned they would not have to give evidence.

Princes William and Harry called tonight for a swift conclusion to the inquest into their mother's death as they learned they would not have to give evidence.

Baroness Butler-Sloss said she would be extremely surprised if the second and third in line to the English throne were asked to take part.

Nearly 10 years after the fatal car crash in Paris, legal argument was held at the High Court to determine the framework for the long-awaited case.

Britain's former top female judge, who is presiding over the inquest into Diana, Princess of Wales's death, made a series of rulings and indications.

The inquest could be heard by a jury of ordinary men and women after Lady Butler-Sloss decided against a jury made up of senior members of the Royal Household.

She also stated there will be a joint inquest for Diana and her boyfriend Dodi Fayed, who was also killed in the 1997 crash, which could start as soon as May.

She told the Princes' private secretary Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton, who was in court throughout: "I would be extremely surprised if those you represent were expected to give evidence."

Lady Butler-Sloss also read part of a letter by Major Lowther-Pinkerton written on behalf of William and Harry.

It said: "It is their desire that the inquest should not only be open, fair and transparent, but that it should move swiftly to a conclusion."

A letter from Diana's sister, Lady Sarah McCorquodale, who was also in court, was read, saying that she shared the Princes' views.

The Queen's lawyer John Nutting QC argued that the public interest would be "best served" by choosing a panel who were not senior members of the royal household.

"We submit that in the particular circumstances of this case… that it would be undesirable, even perhaps invidious, to ask for such a jury," he said.

This development will be seen as a part victory for Dodi's father, Harrods boss Mohamed Al Fayed, who has campaigned for a joint hearing and against a royal jury and who was in court briefly today.

The body of Diana, who was still part of the Royal Family when she died, lay in the chapel at St James's Palace before her funeral, meaning that under current legislation any jury would normally have to be made up of senior members of the royal household.

But Lady Butler-Sloss ruled that such a jury would be "inappropriate".

This removes the difficulties that would have been faced by Buckingham Palace if senior members of the household had been called up for jury duty.

Lady Butler-Sloss has yet to decide whether a public jury will be called, but said she would announce her ruling by early next week, if not before.

Setting out a brief timetable, she said she wanted to start the full inquests in May and would hold another preliminary hearing in March with computer experts from the Metropolitan Police.

Lady Butler-Sloss said she had not even begun to decide on the scope of the inquests.

Ian Burnett QC, for the coroner, said if the inquests were to be heard by a public jury, she would have to transfer to Surrey Coroner's Court.

If she were to do so, she would no longer be running the inquest as deputy royal coroner but as the straightforward coroner of Surrey.

If she decides to sit without a jury, Lady Butler-Sloss could choose whether she wants to transfer or not.

In a packed courtroom filled with legal teams and media, Lady Butler-Sloss said she hoped to receive the full coroner's report from the Metropolitan Police by the end of the month.

She indicated that all interested persons would be given a copy of the dossier.

Today's hearings were finally able to go ahead following the publication of Lord Stevens's findings last month, which dismissed the many conspiracy theories surrounding the fatal incidents which took place in the Pont de l'Alma tunnel in Paris on August 31, 1997.

It concluded the crash was nothing more than a tragic accident and driver Henri Paul was drunk and driving too fast.

Lady Butler-Sloss conceded that there were elements of the police investigation which could be questioned in court.

"There is much in what Lord Stevens's report says which is capable of challenge," she said.

Mr Al Fayed maintains the couple were murdered and claims their deaths were part of a secret plot by the British establishment.

At least 40 witnesses will give evidence at the full inquest - many of them French and some appearing by video-link from Paris.

Michael Mansfield QC, for Mr Al Fayed, said that "in an ideal world", publication of Lord Stevens's report into the crash should have been withheld until the inquest or published afterwards.

"It may have been more desirable to adopt a rather more judicial approach allowing the report to be dispersed to interested persons," he said.

Edmund Lawson, for the Metropolitan Police, hit back at Mr Mansfield's "substantial public criticisms" and said appropriate legal advice had been taken.

Other legal argument centred around whether Lady Butler-Sloss had jurisdiction over the inquest and whether the late Dr John Burton was entitled to take control of Diana's body when he was the royal coroner.

Lawyers for bodyguard Trevor Rees, the sole survivor, and Paul were also present.

The legal argument had been due to last two days, but was completed today.

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