LONDON (AP) – Ordinary Britons, who are divided on whether Princess Diana and her boyfriend were the victims of an accident or murder, may be called to give the official verdict on her death, a judge ruled Monday.

Nearly a decade after Diana and Dodi Fayed died in a car crash in Paris, the legal proceedings surrounding their deaths resumed in a stately, wood-paneled room at London’s Royal Courts of Justice.

The hearing was procedural, and no evidence was heard by Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, a retired senior judge and member of the House of Lords.

Butler-Sloss opened the hearings by offering her sympathy to the couple’s families: Lady Sarah McCorquodale, Diana’s older sister, sat on one side of the courtroom; Mohamed al Fayed, Dodi’s father, on the other.

Diana’s sons, Princes William and Harry, were not present, but their private secretary attended and Butler-Sloss read out a letter filed on their behalf.

“It is their desire that the inquest should not only be open, fair and transparent but that it should move swiftly to a conclusion,” said the letter, written by Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton, private secretary to the princes.

In the case of Diana’s death, little has moved swiftly: A two-year French investigation, a three-year Metropolitan Police inquiry and repeated legal action by al Fayed have delayed the inquests by nearly 10 years.

It’s likely the inquest – which, under British law, must be held when someone dies violently, unexpectedly, or of unknown causes – will begin in May, Butler-Sloss said.

“The reality is that there are victims in this case who want the matter brought to a close so the victims can at last move on,” said lawyer Ian Lucas, who was representing Diana’s former bodyguard.

Butler-Sloss replied: “I, too, would like to say for the benefit of the relatives and friends of all those involved that this is dealt with as quickly as possible.”

One of the issues the hearing was attempting to resolve was whether the inquest would have a jury and, if so, what form it would take. Because Diana was a royal, British law states that an inquest jury should be made up of members of the royal household.

But Sir John Nutting, representing Queen Elizabeth II, said a jury made up exclusively of royal household or staff members – of which there are about 1,200, including 700 full-time employees – could lead to doubts about its trustworthiness.

“Justice must not only be done but must be seen to be done,” Nutting said.

Butler-Sloss agreed a royal jury would be “inappropriate.” She has not yet ruled out having a jury staffed by ordinary citizens, or whether to preside over the inquests alone.

A poll commissioned by the BBC, released in December, found that 31 percent of the sample believed the deaths were not an accident, while 43 percent believed they were. The GfK NOP poll of 1,000 adults had a margin of error of three percentage points.

Butler-Sloss said the deaths would be examined together, saying separate probes would be both “unbelievably expensive” and upsetting for the families.

The public has been following the case for so long that they should be trusted to come to a verdict, argued lawyer Ian Croxford, who was representing Paris’ Ritz Hotel – owned by al Fayed – employer of chauffeur Henri Paul, and site of some of the couple’s final moments.

“Because of the nine or 10 years of public interest, this is the paradigm example of a case where a jury should be brought in,” he said.

Al Fayed, who also owns Harrods department store, pressed British authorities to hold Monday’s hearings in public and had threatened legal action if they did not.

Al Fayed has accused the queen’s husband, Prince Philip, of orchestrating a plot to murder Diana and Fayed. Philip has never commented on the accusation.

Last year, a sweeping British police inquiry – which cost nearly $8 million – dismissed allegations the princess was the victim of a murder conspiracy. The inquiry, headed by Lord Stevens, the former chief of the Metropolitan Police, said the chauffeur in the 1997 crash was drunk and driving at a high speed to elude pursuing photographers. Stevens’ report largely confirmed previous findings by French investigators.

When the full inquest begins, Butler-Sloss will assess what evidence is relevant and which witnesses to call. She said Monday that at least 40 witnesses would be called, many of whom would be French. It is likely they will testify via video link.

Diana, 36, and Fayed, 42, were killed along with Paul when their Mercedes crashed in the Pont d’Alma tunnel on Aug. 31, 1997. The only survivor, bodyguard Trevor Rees – formerly known as Rees-Jones – was badly hurt.

Rulings on the issues raised Monday will be released some time next week, Butler-Sloss said. A second procedural hearing is to be held in February or March.

On the Net:

Lord Stevens’ report,

Inquest home page,

AP-ES-01-08-07 1416EST