Bridge suicide inquiry to call former school head

The former head of a residential care school for girls is to give evidence in court about the circumstances surrounding the suicides of two of his pupils.

Niamh Bysouth, 15, and Georgia May Rowe, 14, were staying at the Good Shepherd School in Bishopton, Renfrewshire, when they died after falling from the Erskine Bridge on October 4, 2009.

It has previously been reported they left their rooms around 10pm and, in their pyjamas, walked three-and-a-half miles to the bridge, which spans the River Clyde.

Both girls, who were said to have jumped off the bridge holding hands, were in the care of local authorities at the time and preparations for a fatal accident inquiry (FAI), which is due to hear testimonies from some 300 witnesses, are under way.

At a preliminary hearing at Paisley Sheriff Court yesterday, John Watt, area fiscal for North Strathclyde, said that Sandy Cunningham, former head of the school, which looks after young women with behavioural issues, should be listed as a witness.

There had earlier been some doubt as to whether Mr Cunningham, who now works for Glasgow City Council, should attend the FAI, which is being headed by Sheriff Ruth Anderson, QC.

Mr Watt said: “I think it would be appropriate given that he was in charge of the Good Shepherd at the time. I took a while to think about it. I am not actually convinced, but better to err on the side of safety.”

Mandy Oliver, the mother of Georgia, will not attend the inquiry. Earlier hearings were told Ms Oliver leads a “chaotic lifestyle” in Hull and is contactable mainly through a warden at a night shelter she sometimes uses.

Mr Watt said: “This is a lady who has difficulties. She is being assisted by an outreach nursing sister who has explained to her the document that I sent her.

“She says that Mandy understands the document but does not want to be represented. I am satisfied that is an expression of her will.”

Georgia’s aunt, Tanya Oliver, of Sorn, Ayrshire, who cared for the teenager when she was a child, will be represented at the inquiry, as will Colette Bysouth, the mother of Niamh, who lives in Helensburgh.

Niamh, also known as Niamh Lafferty, was in the care of Argyll and Bute Council at the time of her death while Georgia was in the care of Hull City Council.

Lawyer Diane McGowan said her firm would be representing both local authorities as they sought to save money at a time of financial pressures, with her and two other solicitors working on the case.

Ms McGowan told the inquiry: “The two local authorities are very conscious they are to be represented at certain stages of the inquiry. They are under immense pressure to reduce the amount of money they spend. In this case, and with an eye to the public purse, we would propose, if your ladyship is happy, that we represent both local authorities. The rational for both local authorities is frankly a reduction in fees.”

Sheriff Anderson said she was content with the arrangement, providing it did not lead to the case being adjourned at any point. She also said all parties should be ready for the inquiry to begin on June 13. A site visit to the school is to be arranged before the next preliminary hearing on April 11.

The Good Shepherd Centre is run by the Cora Foundation, a private family foundation that gives financial assistance to Christian-based organisations. The school offers a range of programmes to pupils, including anger management, drug and alcohol management, and those targeted at young offenders.