Princess Diana Inquest Hearings To Be Held

The first hearings in the inquests into the death of Princess Diana will take place early next year, judicial officials said Thursday.

The courts service said the inquest would be led by Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, a retired senior judge.

Butler-Sloss, former head of the High Court's family division, will become Deputy Coroner of the Queen's Household next month so she can lead the inquest into the Aug. 31, 1997 deaths of Diana and her companion Dodi Fayed.

The judge replaces royal coroner Michael Burgess, who pulled out of the inquest in July, citing a heavy workload.

Butler-Sloss will determine whether there will be separate inquests into the deaths of Diana and Fayed, or a single hearing, and whether a jury or the judge alone will decide the cause of death.

The inquest is awaiting a report by Lord Stevens, the former head of London's Metropolitan Police, whom Burgess asked to investigate the Paris car crash that killed the couple and their driver, Henri Paul.

Rumors and conspiracy theories continue to swirl around the crash, despite a French judge's 1999 ruling that it was an accident. An investigation concluded that Paul had been drinking and was driving at high speed.

Stevens said in January that the investigation was "far more complex than any of us thought" but did not specify what he meant.