Widow of former Welsh minister wins challenge over legality of sexual abuse inquiry

The widow of a former Welsh Government minister who was found dead while facing sexual misconduct allegations has won a High Court challenge over the legality of an inquiry into his sacking.

Two judges sitting in London on Wednesday ruled in favour of Bernie Sargeant, whose 49-year-old husband, Carl Sargeant, was discovered hanged at his home just days after his removal from office.

Following his death in November 2017, then-first minister Carwyn Jones announced an independent inquiry into how he had handled his former minister’s sacking after pressure from Mr Sargeant’s family and Labour politicians.

But Mrs Sargeant went to court to challenge the legality of the operation of the inquiry.

At a hearing in Cardiff in January, Lord Justice Haddon-Cave and Mr Justice Swift heard argument on her behalf that Mr Jones was “involved in setting the operational protocol in a clear breach of natural justice and was acting as a judge in his own court”.

A QC representing Mr Jones said the former first minister’s actions were entirely lawful and that he was responsible for setting the parameters of the investigation by law.

Mrs Sargeant challenged decisions taken by Mr Jones concerning the procedures to be followed by an independent investigator, appointed by Mr Jones to look into his own actions in relation to her husband.

Allowing her challenge, the two judges ruled it had been “unlawful for Mr Jones to have been involved in the decisions to adopt those arrangements”.

They announced that the “the procedural decisions that were taken will need to be reconsidered”.

Mr Sargeant, from Connah’s Quay, North Wales, was found dead four days after being removed from his role as cabinet secretary for communities and children.

His family have said he was not told the details of what he was accused of and was unable to properly defend himself.

In their ruling, the High Court judges said: “The precise circumstances surrounding Mr Sargeant’s removal have yet to be fully investigated.

“It appears, however, that the First Minister received complaints from three women that Mr Sargeant had behaved in a sexually inappropriate way towards each of them. The First Minister referred those complaints to the Labour Party.”

They said it was “common ground” Mr Sargeant had taken his own life. His death had caused “widespread shock in Wales and beyond”.

The judges concluded that in taking decisions on the procedures to be followed by the investigator, Mr Jones had “acted contrary” to representations made in a press statement issued on November 10 2017 “that the arrangements for the investigation would be made separately from his office”.

They said: “In the circumstances of this case, those representations were legally enforceable, and it was not reasonable for Mr Jones to depart from them.”

In light of what had been said in the press statement “it had been unlawful for Mr Jones to have been involved in the decisions to adopt those arrangements”.

The judges said decisions taken in May 2018 in respect of the content of the OP (operational protocol) “were taken unlawfully”, adding: “We consider that the alterations made to the OP at that time should be quashed.”

Lawyers for the family explained later that the ruling meant parts of the protocol relating to oral evidence being heard in private, and the ability of the family’s lawyers to ask questions of witnesses, “will now need to be reviewed”.

Neil Hudgell, of Hudgell Solicitors, who represents Mrs Sargeant, said in a statement: “The Sargeant family were completely unaware of the actions of the First Minister (Carwyn Jones) behind the scenes, despite his assurances of independence.

“It is hugely regrettable that they have had to take matters before the High Court to shine a light on what have proven to be empty words from the former First Minister.

“Today’s ruling does at least address some of the long-held concerns they had about the independence of the inquiry. ”

He added: “I hope that the Welsh Government and the inquiry chair will now move swiftly to meaningfully consult with the Sargeant family about a revised Operational Protocol.

“However, I would remind everyone that there are no victors in this process. The Sargeant family are still without a much-loved husband, father, son and brother.”

Copyright (c) Press Association Ltd. 2019, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) Andy Kelvin / PA Wire.