Failure to comply with coroner results in jail term
In a rather unusual set of circumstances and believed to be the first such prosecution, Duncan Lawrence, a consultant at a London care home was sentenced to four months imprisonment on 30 October 2019. Duncan Lawrence pleaded guilty to the offence of withholding evidence/documentation at an Inquest into the death of a young, vulnerable teenager in February 2019 contrary to the Coroners and Justice Act 2009.
A 19 year old teenager was found hanging in a bathroom at the care home and subsequently died as a result of her injuries. Mr Lawrence was an interim manager prior to the teenager’s death and is understood to have implemented a number of changes in the home, which the coroner decided should form part of the inquest process.
Mr Lawrence stated he was unable to attend the inquest so measures were put in place for him to give evidence by video link but he failed to do so. The CQC had conducted an inspection two months prior to the death and found the care home to be inadequate in a number of areas.
It is understood that Mr Lawrence repeatedly refused to engage with the coronial process and as well as failing to attend the inquest he also failed to provide the coroner with the documents they requested.
The assistant coroner fined Mr Lawrence £650 for failing to attend the Inquest and referred the matter to the police and the Crown Prosecution Service, which resulted in the subsequent prosecution. In addition, the coroner made a finding of neglect against the care home following the Inquest. Mr Lawrence is not believed to have been legally represented.
Schedule 5 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 gives coroners the power to require evidence to be given or produced as follows:
- At the inquest by giving evidence and producing any document in the person’s custody or under their control relating to a matter relevant to the inquest
- Providing a written statement during the investigation (previously provision of statements was a voluntary matter)
- Producing any documents or other item relevant to the investigation
- The exemption of privileged material that would not be required to be disclosed in civil proceedings
- Considerations of powers of entry, search and seizure.
To be effective, these powers require the coroner to serve a formal notice that also sets out the consequences of not complying. There is an opportunity to respond and explain that compliance is not possible or is unreasonable, following which the coroner then makes a decision after considering the importance of the information and the public interest. A document is in a person’s custody whether they are in possession of it or merely have a right to possession of it.
Intentional suppression or concealment of a document believed to be relevant, or its alteration or destruction, can result in criminal sanctions including a fine of up to £1,000 or up to 51 weeks in prison.
Coroners have wide ranging powers and clearly great care and consideration is required when dealing with disclosure issues. It is important that early legal advice and intervention is sought by care and/or nursing homes in cases which are likely to result in an inquest and subsequent civil claims.
This case clearly illustrates the seriousness with which coroners will take the lack of cooperation and the loss of liberty individuals potentially face if they decide to disregard a coroner’s order.