Westminster coroner Dr Paul Knapman reflects on his 31-year career
From the Iranian Embassy siege in 1980 to the 2005 London 7/7 bombings, Dr Knapman has seen it all
“Every Monday morning I know there have been 25 deaths over the weekend, and there will be differences in all of them.”
It is not the usual thought most people have when they go to work to start the week but for the past 31 years Dr Paul Knapman’s job has been more than slightly different to that of the average person.
Presiding over 85,000 deaths during his time as Westminster coroner Dr Knapman, who will retire from his post at the end of March, has heard a number of notable cases throughout a long and distinguished career.
From the Iranian Embassy siege of 1980, to the rail crashes at Clapham Junction in 1988 and Ladbroke Grove in 1999, and the ongoing inquest into the 2005 London 7/7 bombings, he has presided over some of the most high-profile inquests in the past few decades.
“For 31 years I have known most roads in London, I know every cross road of significance, I know where the crack cocaine dens are, I know every tall building and I know the bridges that people jump from,” he says.
“There are some very tough jobs out there. Really difficult jobs are, for example, governors of prisons, superintendents of police stations in south London, headmasters of difficult inner-city comprehensive schools and coroners.
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“There have been challenges, but on reflection it has been a very interesting and worthwhile career and I know I have made a difference in various fields.
“You are an investigator and your staff have the power to go out and investigate to get at the truth. Relatives want to get to the truth and I think it’s reasonable that they should know that.”
A role of such prestige does not come without its ups and downs, though, and Dr Knapman was on the receiving end of some criticism after he gave permission for the hands of 25 of the 51 drowning victims from the 1989 Marchioness boat disaster to be removed for identification purposes.
“Of course it was regrettable,” he says. “I don’t think there was sufficient appreciation that at the time all London coroners gave consent for unidentified drowned bodies to have their hands removed if the police wanted it and that happened to probably a couple of dozen bodies every year in the 1970s and 80s.
“In those days there was a patrician attitude that you did not tell people details they did not need to know. For example, in the 1970s and 80s some doctors wouldn’t tell people they had cancer because they did not need to know – they might just say to a woman: ‘You have a lump in the breast, it’s much better that we remove it’.
“I do take criticism personally and I think that people don’t always understand the difficulties of the job.”
While the facts and figures continue to build up before his impending retirement – he has held 150 inquests into deaths at Wandsworth prison, 100 inquests into incidents involving police, and 10 into different fatal bombings – he says the most satisfying part of the job is when he knows he has helped victims’ families.
He says: “It happens very frequently that when relatives come into court they are anxious, on the edge of their seats with lots of questions and they fear that it’s going to be a whitewash.
“The coroner asks all the questions, everything is explained and you say to them ‘do you have any questions?’ and they look relieved and say ‘no, thank you very much, it’s all clear now’.
“That’s the important thing.”