Care home manager could face jail for failing to give evidence to inquest

A “doctor” who managed a “chaotic” psychiatric care home before a teenager killed herself has admitted failing to give evidence to her inquest, in what is said to be a legal first.

Duncan Lawrence was warned he faces a possible jail sentence after pleading guilty on Friday at Wimbledon Magistrates’ Court.

The “unprecedented” case relates to the inquest of Sophie Bennett, 19, who was found hanged in a bathroom at Lancaster Lodge in Richmond, west London, in May 2016 – just over a year after she was admitted.

The teenager, who suffered from bipolar affective disorder, social anxiety disorder and atypical autism, died two days later in Kingston Hospital.

An inquest jury found in February that neglect contributed to her death and oversight at the facility was “grossly inadequate”.

Prosecutor Charles Shelton said Lawrence was notified he should attend the inquest in October last year, telling the court: “The defendant made a number of recommendations as to how the care home should operate.

“The coroner considered therefore he was an important part of the inquest.”

Lawrence, who was not represented, told the court he had “extenuating circumstances” of caring for both parents who later died and said he had provided some written statements to the coroner.

He said he was guilty “100%” but maintained he had “wrongly assumed” written statements would suffice.

Despite being the clinical lead at the home and understood by staff to be a medical doctor, Ms Bennett’s inquest heard Lawrence did not have a legitimate medical doctorate, and had obtained a certificate from a “degree mill” in Denmark.

He was the interim manager when Care Quality Commission (CQC) staff arrived for an urgent inspection two months before Ms Bennett’s death, ranking the home inadequate in a number of areas.

CQC inspector Wynne Price-Rees said he found Lawrence “disengaged” and lacking knowledge of essential care documents at the “chaotic” facility.

Magistrate John Soones said: “In view of your work at the care home you were expected to give important information to the coroner.

“Irrespective of your personal circumstances you failed to do that properly despite the coroner making all efforts to help you.

“This goes to the heart of the inquest process … to be able to get all the facts leading up to the death of Sophie Bennett.

“There’s a real prospect of custody. We urge you to seek proper legal advice.”

Lawrence admitted withholding evidence/documentation in relation to a coroner’s inquest contrary to the Coroners and Justice Act 2009.

The charity Inquest, which is working with Ms Bennett’s family, believes the “unprecedented case” is the first time someone has faced criminal charges for failing to provide evidence to a coroner.

Lawrence is due to be sentenced on Monday at the same court.

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