THE long-awaited inquests into how Diana, Princess of Wales, and her lover, Dodi Fayed, died will begin today, marking the start of a process that many hope will finally put an end to six years of conspiracy theories.
Both hearings, which will represent the first time the deaths have ever been investigated in Britain, have been delayed because of lengthy court proceedings in France.
A French investigation into the car crash in a Paris tunnel on 31 August, 1997 - the only inquiry into the crash which also killed the couple’s chauffeur, Henri Paul - concluded that the driver was on a cocktail of drink and prescription drugs and lost control because he was speeding.
Despite the findings, which have been rejected by Mr Paul’s family, the conspiracy theories over what happened that night have continued, and range from an assassination plot to the rumour that Princess Diana was pregnant when she died.
Yesterday, it was reported that Diana’s former butler, Paul Burrell, who recently published correspondence in which she predicted her own death in a car crash, had been asked to hand over the letter to the inquiry. In the hand written letter, Diana names the person who she feared was "planning an accident" in her car involving "brake failure and serious head injury".
Mr Burrell, who is abroad on holiday with his family after a gruelling tour of the United States and Europe for his curtsy-and-tell book, A Royal Duty, was not available for comment.
The coroner’s office in Surrey, conducting both inquests, refused to confirm or deny whether it had requested the letter. However, a spokeswoman dismissed the story, published in two newspapers, as "speculation".
Michael Burgess, the coroner of the Queen’s Household, will open the hearing into Diana’s death this morning by detailing the purpose of his inquiries and the nature and scope of the evidence to be heard.
After opening and adjourning it, Mr Burgess will travel to Reigate, Surrey, to open Mr Fayed’s inquest, in his additional capacity as county coroner. No witnesses will be called at either hearing today.
Mr Burgess will have to review all 6,000 pages of unpublished material gathered by the French investigating authorities - all of which will have to be translated into English - before the inquest can properly get under way. After reading the 27-volume report, assembled by French judge Herve Stephan, which has never been published, Mr Burgess will also have to consider whether there is any other possible source of evidence or line of inquiry which needs to be addressed.
It is believed that it could be up to ten months before witnesses are called. Among those expected to give evidence are Trevor Rees-Jones, Diana’s former bodyguard on the short trip from the Ritz hotel to Mr Fayed’s apartment and the crash’s only survivor. He has said in the past he can recall little of what happened.
It is hoped the inquest will shed new light on what happened to the Mercedes in the Alma tunnel. But it is unlikely to resolve all the unanswered questions surrounding the deaths.
Mohamed al-Fayed, Dodi’s father and the owner of Harrods, is insistent that the couple were murdered by the British secret service. He has long argued for a full public inquiry into the deaths, arguing that only such a probe could "draw a line" under the speculation. He is currently appealing a decision by Scotland’s Lord Advocate, Lord Drummond-Young, who refused his application for an inquiry in Scotland on the basis that the crash happened outside Scottish jurisdiction.
Last month, a Sunday newspaper published claims by a senior French police officer who said that Diana was pregnant at the time. The source said that the fact was unreported by the inquiry as it was not considered relevant.
A spokeswoman for Mr Burgess said: "The purpose of an inquest - and it is a judicial process - is to identify who died, when and where the death occurred, and how the cause of death arose. It does not necessarily go into all the speculation, the whys and wherefores."
Under English law, inquests need to be called whenever the body of a British citizen who dies abroad is returned home for burial.
Two separate hearings will be held today, four-and-a-half hours apart. Diana’s will be held at 10:30am at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, in London. Mr Fayed’s will be heard at 3:30pm at Wray Park, Reigate.