Prison for care home ‘consultant’

A care home consultant has been sentenced to four months’ custody for withholding evidence/documentation from an inquest into the death of a young…

Introduction

A care home consultant has been sentenced to four months’ custody for withholding evidence/documentation from an inquest into the death of a young care home resident.

The 30 October 2019 saw the sentencing hearing for Duncan Lawrence at Wimbledon Magistrates’ Court. This is a case that has attracted a lot of media attention due in part to the fact it is the first such prosecution under Schedule 6 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 (“CJA”).

Background

Sophie Bennett, aged 19, was resident at Lancaster Lodge. She fell under the care of Mr Lawrence. The regime imposed by Mr Lawrence was subject to quite some controversy, with complaints made to the CQC. Following the CQC inspection in March 2016 a number of the residents were moved to other care homes. Unfortunately, Sophie Bennett was not moved and she was found dead on 2 May 2016 having hanged herself.

The inquest

The inquest into Sophie’s death was held in January 2019. The coroner issued a notice to Mr Lawrence under Schedule 5 CJA which required him to give evidence at the inquest. Mr Lawrence suggested that he give his evidence by Skype but he apparently used a ‘stand-in’ for a preliminary hearing.

Mr Lawrence then subsequently did not attend the inquest and did not give evidence. He had not provided a complete statement and he did not disclose documents to which his statement referred.

In May 2019, the coroner imposed a fine of £650 on Mr Lawrence under Schedule 6(1) CJA for his failure to comply with the Schedule 5 notice. This in itself was noteworthy as the power to impose fines had thus far been rarely exercised. The maximum fine the coroner could have imposed under Schedule 6(1) was £1,000.

The criminal offence

Mr Lawrence was then investigated for criminal offences under the CJA. Schedule 6 paragraph 7(2)(a) makes it a criminal offence for a person to intentionally suppress or conceal a document that is, and that that the person knows or believes to be, a relevant document from an inquest. Paragraph 7(1)(b) makes it a criminal offence if a person does anything that is

intended to have the effect of preventing any evidence, document or other thing from being given, produced or provided for the purposes of an inquest.

Mr Lawrence was charged and pleaded guilty to withholding evidence/documentation from the inquest. Indeed, at the hearing Mr Lawrence said he was “100% guilty”.

On 30 October 2019 Mr Lawrence was sentenced to a term of imprisonment of four months. This is a significant sentence given the maximum sentence of 51 weeks. Presumably this sentence was two-thirds of what it would have been, given Mr Lawrence’s guilty plea.

Comment

Mr Lawrence’s first sentencing hearing was adjourned on the basis that he may withdraw his guilty plea. He was represented by counsel at that hearing and raised the possibility of a double jeopardy argument in light of his being previously fined by the coroner.

Given the sentence passed yesterday it is clear that Mr Lawrence decided not to run the double jeopardy argument. The fine imposed by the coroner, it can be deduced, would likely have related to the failure to attend, and the prosecution related to Mr Lawrence’s documentary failings.

This case, with the significant media attention it has attracted, sends a clear message that a deliberate failure to assist a coroner will result in severe financial and criminal consequences.

Mr Lawrence’s case seems to be an exceptional one with multiple, deliberate failings. Professionals should take heed of this case, but should not be fearful. Witnesses who are honest and transparent but who may make mistakes are unlikely to be targeted under the punitive provisions of the CJA.

If you have any questions or would like to discuss any aspect of this article, please contact Crispin Kenyon, Partner at crispin.kenyon@weightmans.com or 020 7822 7151.

Share on Twitter