Families of the victims of serial killer Stephen Port have been told a fresh inquest into their deaths will focus on possible failings in the police investigation.
But the Old Bailey was told it would not be lawful to investigate the conduct of another coroner who previously failed to identify foul play in the deaths of two of the young men before Port was caught.
Port, now aged 44, drugged and raped four young men and dumped their bodies near his home in Barking, east London, between 2014 and 2015.
Following a trial at the Old Bailey, he was handed a whole-life sentence for the murders of fashion student Anthony Walgate, 23, Gabriel Kovari, 22, Kent chef Daniel Whitworth, 21, and Jack Taylor, 25, a forklift truck driver from Dagenham.
Since then, the victims’ families have question why he was not stopped sooner and the Independent Office for Police Conduct has investigated.
An earlier inquest into the deaths of Mr Whitworth and Mr Kovari which had reached an open conclusion was quashed.
During the trial it had transpired a suicide note purporting to be penned by Mr Whitworth admitting involvement in Mr Kovari’s death had been faked by Port to cover his tracks.
On Friday, Judge Sarah Munro QC, sitting as assistant coroner for east London, vowed to hold a “full, fair and fearless” inquest.
She offered her “sincere condolences” to the family of Mr Taylor and Mr Whitworth’s partner in court as well as bereaved relatives not present.
Andrew O’Connor QC, counsel for the coroner, told the court: “The main focus of these inquests should be the adequacy of the police investigation into Mr Port.”
He said it would not be necessary to call extensive evidence on the circumstances of the deaths because Port’s conviction was evidence in itself.
On the scope of the inquest, he said: “The starting point will be evidence of police involvement and knowledge of Stephen Port prior to the death of Anthony Walgate.
“It will then be necessary for you to examine the way the police responded to each of the four deaths, the response to earlier deaths being relevant.
“It will inform your investigation into whether steps should have been taken before the later deaths – even before the last death of Jack Taylor.”
Mr O’Connor argued that Ms Munro had no power to investigate any “insufficiency” by the original coroner in the inquest into the deaths of Mr Kovari and Mr Whitworth.
That included whether she properly scrutinised the fake suicide note and Mr Whitworth’s movements in the days before his death.
He said: “What this boils down to is evidence relating to these matters was not called at the inquest into Mr Kovari and Mr Whitworth’s deaths. When witnesses and a police officer were called they were not pressed.”
But he said: “The inquests happened. We will be hearing evidence of those inquests. The transcripts will be before you.
“Witnesses, police officers who took part in those inquests can and no doubt will be asked about what they said at those inquests, what they did before those inquests and what they did or did not do after those inquests.”
He stressed Ms Munro would not be able to look at whether the original coroner in some way “failed”.
Mr O’Connor said Port himself had the legal right to take part in the inquests but it was not yet known if he wanted to.
If he did, it was suggested he could hear evidence by video link from prison and it would not be necessary for him to give evidence.
Any involvement by Port in his victims’ inquests would cause “upset” to the families, the court heard.
During the hearing, Ms Munro said: “My priority this morning is to express my sincere condolences to the families both present and absent for the loss of their loved ones.
“You have my assurance that I will conduct full, fair and fearless inquests.”
“I recognise you will all feel frustration at the time it has taken to reach this point. I assure you work has been progressing as expeditiously as possible. There is a considerable amount of work to be done.
“I note that concerns have previously been raised about independence of the process. Those concerns can be allayed by my appointment.”
Afterwards, lawyer Andrew Petherbridge, acting for the families, said: “It’s clear from today’s hearing that there remains a long process ahead for the families.
“However, they remain committed to unearthing the truth and are grateful to the coroner for the careful consideration she is giving all matters.”
A further pre-inquest review will take place at the Old Bailey in November with a full inquest at the same venue as soon as possible in 2020.
A decision on whether to hold the inquest with a jury was put off until the next hearing.