Care home ‘doctor’ accused over inquest evidence given more time to reconsider plea

The sentencing of a “doctor” who admitted failing to give evidence to the inquest of a mentally ill teenager has been adjourned as he “seeks further legal advice in relation to his plea”, a court has heard.

Duncan Lawrence (pictured) was in charge of a “chaotic” psychiatric care home before Sophie Bennett, 19, took her own life after comparing a new regime he had ushered in to a “bootcamp”.

The former competitive swimmer, who suffered from bipolar disorder, social anxiety and atypical autism, was found hanged in a bathroom at Lancaster Lodge in Richmond, south-west London, in May 2016 – just over a year after she was admitted.

Earlier this month, Lawrence, 60, who was not then represented by legal counsel, pleaded guilty “100%” at Wimbledon Magistrates’ Court to failing to give evidence to her inquest.

But on Tuesday Deputy District Judge Carolyn Kenyon adjourned his sentencing, telling the court: “On the previous occasion Mr Lawrence attended court he entered a guilty plea.

“He now wishes to proceed with further legal advice in relation to his plea.

“It seems to me that this is not a straightforward matter and in the circumstances it would be in the interests of justice to adjourn.

“He was not represented at the first hearing. I therefore grant the application for the adjournment.”

The “unprecedented” case is believed to be the first time someone has been prosecuted for withholding information from a coroner, according to the charity Inquest.

Defending, Ros Olleson said: “It’s a complicated matter. I don’t think anyone has encountered this charge previously.”

She suggested there was “potentially an issue with double jeopardy” as Lawrence has already been fined £650 in May by coroner John Taylor.

The judge said if there is to be an application to withdraw the guilty plea the defence has to make that application in writing within seven days to serve on both the court and prosecution.

Lawrence, of Sydenham, south-east London, was told to appear at the same court on Wednesday September 11.

On August 16 he had admitted withholding evidence/documentation relating to a coroner’s inquest contrary to the Coroners and Justice Act 2009.

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

Prosecutor Charles Shelton previously told the court Lawrence was “considered an important part of the inquest” after he made “a number of recommendations as to how the care home should operate”.

Ms Bennett had compared the regime brought in by Lawrence to a “boot camp”, according to the charity Inquest, which is working with her family.

The changes included cancelling all external therapies and saw the resignations of senior staff members, Inquest said.

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 doctorate, and had obtained a certificate from Knightsbridge University – a “degree mill” based in Denmark.

He was the interim manager at the home 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.

The charity operating Lancaster Lodge is currently being prosecuted under the Health and Social Care Act.

The Richmond Psychosocial Foundation International (RPFI) is accused of failing to discharge a duty which resulted in users being exposed to a significant risk of avoidable harm.

Copyright (c) PA Media Ltd. 2019, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) Stefan Rousseau / PA Wire.

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