Coroner’s Power to Require Attendance of Witnesses Has Real Teeth

Today’s headline that the human rights of children and young people with mental health problems and autism are being abused is a cause for real concern.  Sophie Bennett was a one such young person, who tragically died aged 19 in May 2016 whilst at Lancaster Lodge in Richmond.  An inquest into her death heard evidence that the home had been run in the style of a ‘dictatorship’, with untrained staff, removal of therapy sessions and a ‘bootcamp’ mentality, and concluded that inadequacies in its management and policies had contributed to her death.

The particular point of interest in terms of procedure for practitioners is the outcome for Duncan Lawrence, the clinical lead who instigated changes which led to poor care, who failed to answer all the Coroner’s questions or attend the inquest. He was fined £650 by the assistant coroner conducting the inquest for his failure to attend, and the matter was also referred to the CPS and the police.

The Coroner’s powers to require the attendance of witnesses were extended by Schedule 5 of the CJA 2009 – which meant that the Coroner could issue a witness summons without an application to the High Court.  Schedule 6 para 7 of the Act also creates an imprisonable offence of “withholding evidence/documentation in relation to a coroner’s inquest”, which carries a maximum sentence on summary conviction of 51 weeks’ imprisonment.

Mr Lawrence pleaded guilty to that offence in August and was sentenced this week to four months’ imprisonment.  This indicates that the starting point after a trial would have been six months.  The District Judge passing sentence emphasised the importance of witnesses’ cooperation to the full and thorough investigation which a coroner must pursue. 

It is believed that this is the first prosecution for this offence.  The sentence passed makes very clear the seriousness with which the courts will view conduct which frustrates or delays inquests and coronial investigations, and rightly so.  The CQC inspector who rated Lancaster Lodge as inadequate said that he had “never seen anything else like it”.  The vulnerable young people accommodated in such institutions will only be better protected if a coroner’s power to require the attendance of those who are responsible for their care has teeth.  As practitioners, the case reminds us of the importance of advising any reticent clients or witnesses that they run a real risk of imprisonment if they are not forthcoming.

Anna Midgley

Practice Areas: 
Inquest