Care home consultant jailed for not giving evidence at inquest of vulnerable teenager

A disgraced residential care home consultant has been jailed for four months for failing to give evidence at the inquest of a mentally-ill teenager in a landmark case.

Duncan Lawrence, 60, repeatedly refused to answer questions about the new regime he ushered in at Lancaster Lodge in Richmond, south-west London, following the death of 19-year-old Sophie Bennett in May 2016 amid accusations he had transformed it into a “boot camp” before she died.

Lawrence (pictured), of Sydenham in south-east London, refused to engage with Ms Bennett’s inquest, held earlier this year, prompting the coroner to later fine him £650.

But he was subsequently charged with intentionally withholding evidence of documentation in relation to a coroner’s inquest, the first case of its kind in England and Wales.

Sentencing him at Wimbledon Magistrates’ Court on Wednesday, district judge Andrew Sweet said: “There is a good reason why people should attend or provide documents to a coroner when carrying out such an inquest, and that is expected to be done with full co-operation and without delay.

“You frustrated that process.”

Lawrence, who was unrepresented at court, apologised to the family, but said the charge was “nothing to do” with him, and was “all down to a big misunderstanding”.

Speaking outside the court, Ms Bennett’s father Ben Bennett said: “It is not about the sentence he’s getting, it’s that he has never accounted for himself or produced the evidence.

“We have not got the full picture.

“His apology means nothing, he has had plenty of opportunities to do that. It is too late.”

In a victim impact statement read in court, Mr Bennett, described how the care home “went from being a caring, kind and therapeutic place, to a shambolic, unsafe and uncaring place” following “pivotal” input from Lawrence.

He said: “It has been a constant and exhausting struggle to try and ensure that all the processes, investigations and inquiries are properly conducted and completed.

“The inquest should have finally revealed the full truth to us about Sophie’s avoidable death.

“Duncan Lawrence’s behaviour denied us this.”

He added: “The family was astounded, upset and insulted by the string of lame and disingenuous excuses the he gave to the coroner’s court for his failure to cooperate.

“We have been deeply insulted and distressed by the contempt that he has shown to us, the court, and to Sophie’s memory by his behaviour.”

The court heard how the teenager, from Tooting in south-west London, was bipolar and had atypical autism and social anxiety.

She was found hanged in a bathroom on May 2 2016 and died two days later in Kingston Hospital as a result of her injuries, a post-mortem examination found.

An inquest jury in February this year found she did not intend to take her own life, the court was told.

Jurors also found that the changes to care, inadequately trained staff and the fact that staff were “in the deep end” and “learning on the job”, all contributed to Ms Bennett’s death.

The jury said that a “grossly inadequate” observation plan was put in place for Ms Bennett, and not understood or followed.

Shortly before her death, regulator the Care Quality Commission (CQC) criticised the facility as inadequate in a number of areas – six months after it had been rated good by the same body.

Lawrence, who was no longer working at the care home at the time of Ms Bennett’s death, initially said he could not attend the three-week inquest in person as he was caring for his sick mother in Alaska.

But he failed to appear before the coroner on video-link amid claims he was actually in south London – not the US – at the time, later stating his no-show was down to “ongoing stress” in his “personal life”.

It also emerged during the inquest that Mr Lawrence did not have a legitimate medical doctorate while in his role as a consultant, and had instead obtained a certificate from a “degree mill” in Denmark.

The sentencing on Wednesday comes as the CQC attempts to bring a separate legal action against the Richmond Psychosocial International Foundation (RPFI) and manager Peggy Jhugroo, who was a senior figure at Lancaster Lodge at the time of Ms Bennett’s death.

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

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