Four London councils appeal to Kenneth Clarke for government to pay bill

By Mark Conrad | 22 June 2012

“The secretary of state has received a request for central funding of the Litvinenko inquest” – Ministry of Justice spokesman

Four hard-up councils estimate that the inquest into the death of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko is set to cost them £4 million, Exaro can reveal.

They have appealed to Kenneth Clarke, justice secretary, for the government to foot the bill.

The estimated cost is higher than the £2.9 million bill for the inquest into the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. The Ministry of Justice met that bill.

Four London boroughs – Camden, Islington, Hackney and Tower Hamlets – have asked the ministry to pay for the Litvinenko inquest.

Litvinenko, a KGB officer who turned Kremlin critic, died in London six years ago from poisoning by radioactive polonium.

A spokeswoman for Camden Council told Exaro: “Camden is one of four boroughs that currently stand to share the cost of the Litvinenko inquest because he died in University College Hospital.

“The cost is estimated to be in the region of £4 million.

“Given the national security implications and that the Ministry of Justice is expected to appoint a judge to oversee the inquest, we are lobbying the government to cover all of these costs. We are hopeful that the government will agree to this.”

A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice said: “The secretary of state has received a request for central funding of the Litvinenko inquest from Dr Shirley Radcliffe, deputy Inner North London coroner. This request is currently being considered.”

Sources involved in the inquest say that it is likely to take place within a year. It is expected to cover wider questions than are usually addressed by inquests, causing costs to soar, and may be carried out by a High Court judge instead of a coroner.

A local authority usually covers the cost of an inquest following a death in their area. But town halls are under financial pressure following a 27 per cent cut over four years to their grants from central government.

Minutes from a meeting last month of councillors in Hackney also reveal concerns there about the inquest. The minutes record: “It was noted that there would always be the risk of unpredictable additional costs, such as a proposed bill for the coroner’s inquest into the death of a poisoned former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, which might need to be borne equally between the boroughs of Camden, Islington, Hackney and Tower Hamlets at the cost of nearly approximately £1 million each.

“This was being appealed against by the local authorities concerned.”

Following Litvinenko’s death, doctors confirmed that he was killed by poisoning from radioactive polonium-210. An investigation by the Metropolitan Police suggested that the he may have ingested the substance at a hotel bar in Mayfair.

But Russia has refused to extradite Scotland Yard’s main suspect, Andrei Lugovoi, the Russian politician and former KGB bodyguard. But he, and the Russian government, deny any involvement.

Lugovoi has retained Pinsent Masons, the London-based solicitors to represent him at the inquest. He is expected to give evidence by video link.

The UK and Russian governments are likely to engage lawyers to argue over what evidence should be kept secret. One source familiar with the situation said that lawyers were preparing for “the mother of all bunfights”.

Soon after Litvinenko’s death, the local coroner, Dr Andrew Reid, opened an inquest, but immediately adjourned it while the police investigation went ahead. He has said that the case merited “an investigation into the alleged criminal role of the Russian state”.

He also said that Litvinenko’s links to UK intelligence agencies were a matter of “legitimate inquiry”.

He may take evidence from members of Cobra at the time of Litvinenko’s killing, including Tony Blair, then the prime minister.

Litvinenko’s widow, Marina, has long called for a full inquiry into her husband’s death.

The Litvinenko inquest may yet prove to be the most expensive in UK legal history. The inquest into the deaths of 52 people in the ‘7/7’ London bombings in 2005 cost £4.6 million.

The inquest into the death of Jean Charles de Menezes, an innocent Brazilian shot by armed police soon after those bombings, cost £2.2 million.

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