Pre-Inquest Review Meeting No 4 #JusticeforLB
This is a guest blog post written by John Lish following last week’s pre-inquest review meeting:
When I attended the 4th pre-inquest hearing into the death of Connor Sparrowhawk on Wednesday 9th September at the Coroner’s Court at New County Hall Oxford, it prompted a number of thoughts that needed considered reflection.
It had been a fairly late decision which only firmed up on the Tuesday into a definite intention to show solidarity with Sara and Richard. I was also interested in seeing how the process worked in practice. So just before midday, I set off for the 2pm hearing.
The journey to the Coroner’s Court was somewhat metaphorical in nature. While I have visited Oxford a few times in the last few years, this was the first time I had used the Park and Ride scheme provided by Oxfordshire County Council (OCC) and it was well laid out, efficient and even provided free wifi on the buses. It felt like a warm welcome to Oxford.
That feeling changed when I approached New County Hall itself. It was built in the early 70s having been designed(?) in-house and you can tell that it was. I would say there was a nod to Brutalist architecture but that would be an insult to the architects involved in that movement. It is a building you don’t want to gaze upon. Look at the city it says, don’t look at me.
The feeling of discomfort continues with its public entrance which is hidden from the main street around a corner. It gives a sense that you’re entering a different world away from the public discourse. This is a building designed for its internal workings and not for engagement with the public space.
The foyer containing the reception feels little more than a corridor. Your eyes search for orientation, you see signage for the Coroner’s Court and follow the arrow around the corner. You’re presented with a multiple choice of closed doors. To your left are lifts and a stairwell, in front are a set of closed doors to a corridor and on your right another corridor behind closed doors and no obvious signage or flow to the building. You spot that the doors on the right are controlled by a push button so head on down that corridor.
At the end of the corridor is another set of closed doors. Behind that another corridor that runs left but you need to head straight on into a room which contains a cafeteria. From the doorway, you see wood panelling running along the far wall. Only with a closer look can you see the doors that lead to the Coroner’s Court itself and the notices on the doors are small enough so that users of the cafeteria can be oblivious to whether the Coroner’s Court actually existed behind the panelling.
So with help, I was shown into the court itself and said goodbye to the 70s building to enter what looks like a C19th court that had been juxtaposed to further add to the Kafkaesque experience. While I generally approve of maintaining usage of heritage, I suspect the seating in the public gallery was designed to minimise the amount of public scrutiny when it was built, let alone the size and needs of people today. It was just another small piece of alienation (and back pain) to add to the experience.
There is a small yet significant low-level hostility in how New County Hall operates to an outsider. It demands you conform and learn its design rather than be openly readable. It doesn’t behave like a public space but rather a private space that grudgingly allows public engagement. It’s architectural language does remind me of the criticism Sara has faced in being told by OCC’s Director of Social Care that “You do things the wrong way….We offered you a meeting when we sent the report and you put your comments online for other people to read.” [quote from OCC The Farce Continues] or in other words, you must conform to their behaviours and collude in their private sphere.
And yet I uncomfortably sat in the public gallery of the Coroner’s Court witnessing this 4th pre-inquest hearing being held in public with six interested parties below me awaiting the arrival of the Coroner, Darren Salter.
This is a testimony to the resilience of Sara and Richard, their family friends and supporters going through a cruel process as their son becomes an object of the legal system. The coldness of the process as captured by George Julian‘s prolific tweeting under the @LBInquest account that afternoon prompted Bill Love to tweet:
Each tweet from @LBInquest further reinforces the need for us to find a better (humanitarian) way of investigating and holding to account
— Bill Love (@billrlove) September 9, 2015
On reflection, I think I’ll have to disagree with Bill for two reasons.
The first is that the nature of Connor’s death means he deserves the attention of a public process of law and that it is heard by a jury of his peers. A jury decision and coroner’s verdict has status as a public record. This is sadly necessary because of the second reason namely the behaviour of public bodies.
Often processes get blamed for behaviours and we allow a denial of agency to occur in our thinking. That’s not to say that processes can’t help support people in behaving more appropriately but agency and choice are usually available. After all arse-covering is a choice as is being obstructional.
This is what we see when an inquisitorial process such as an inquest is made up of interested parties that want to protect their position. The debate over the terms and scope of the inquest becomes adversarial as competing legal representatives of the interested parties attempt to define the process. The inquisitor is the coroner and it is their duty to conduct the process in an inquisitorial manner but that duty does not extend to the interested parties themselves except in responding to requests from the coroner’s office. Each have legal rights themselves in this process.
So the question for those arguing for a ‘better way’ is how do you have an investigation and holding to account which requires some legal status without adopting legal process?
While I agree with the instincts of what Bill Love tweeted, I cannot rid myself of the question posed. There is a need for equality of representation within the inquest process but most of the pain inflicted on Connor’s family has been by the behaviour of Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust (Southern_NHSFT) and OCC. Mitigation of their pain and grief would be with behaving transparently and with candour. Instead, they have chosen to be adversarial in their approach to the family over the last two years.
That behaviour was seen early on in the 4th pre-inquest hearing when Southern_NHSFT barrister attempted to argue that only one member of the family (Sara) be allowed to give evidence due to the coroner’s “ruling” at a previous pre-inquest hearing. With a raised eyebrow and an understated comment (to paraphrase) “well I wouldn’t call it that”, he swept aside the attempt to constrain him by the Southern_NHSFT barrister. That exchange gave me confidence in how the coroner would run this hearing to facilitate the scope of the inquest fairly. That confidence was well founded as he comported himself with good humour, fairness and understatement, listening to all arguments and challenging them on occasions.
In particular, I found myself smiling at a later exchange when discussions were about running orders and time allowed when the coroner made the comment that “if it takes two weeks, it’ll take two weeks”. A statement that demonstrated intent that the jury will hear all they need to hear in whatever time it took.
The notional jury played a large part in proceedings as the main antagonists in this pre-inquest hearing (the legal representatives for the family and Southern_NHSFT respectively) competed over what should or shouldn’t be heard or read by them. For all the legal arguments over process, it is the jury that remains the unknown quantity in this process and that seemed to drive a significant proportion of the arguments.
Lets consider three separate Southern_NHSFT barrister’s arguments made during the hearing about allowing Richard to give evidence; whether Sara should be allowed to give oral evidence twice; and the argument about excluding jurors who have read the blogs about Connor. These for me have a common root. Namely these are attempts to minimise the presence of Connor as a living and beloved young man with the jury.
Especially dangerous are the blogs and campaigns for Connor and their connection to the sense of wrong that this beloved young man was taken away from his family. A shared humanity and outrage.
The request by the Southern_NHSFT barrister that jurors be excluded with any knowledge of the case was part of this minimising process and was a bargaining position to influence the coroner’s questioning of potential jury members. The sheepish response to the coroner’s gently acerbic comment that it was going to be unlikely that any jury would be found under those conditions demonstrated that. The target was the exclusion of voices and opinions, especially Sara’s.
It is in Southern_NHSFT’s interest to minimise the human element, to make it a technical discussion about care plans and staff functions. Juries are known to be more sceptical of authorities/appeal to authority so this jury presents problems for Southern_NHSFT. This seems especially so given how they presented new evidence to the coroner as it feels clear that they are basing their arguments around the care plan written for Connor.
The presenting of emails and the interrogated data of the care plan does seem to demonstrate Southern_NHSFT strategy for the inquest itself. Essentially the inquest boils down to a simple equation: either the structures and systems that Southern_NHSFT had in place were insufficient which places responsibility with the upper management of the Trust or the care plan developed through those structures/systems was robust and it was a failure of staff to fulfil their roles.
Hence I think the exchange between the Southern_NHSFT barrister and the coroner re the email evidence was significant because of her insistence that these emails didn’t constitute part of Connor’s care plan. That raised a flag with me as it separates the behaviour of staff from Southern_NHSFT systems. Equally, this new data from the care plan also feels with reflection to be an attempt to differentiate between the creation of the care plan and the implementation of said care plan. I wonder if any of the other interested parties have images of drawbridges being raised?
Obviously there is a hierarchy of what Southern_NHSFT want to achieve in terms of a jury verdict but the strategy feels clear having witnessed this pre-inquest hearing.
After two hours of legal discussions and with outstanding arguments still to be agreed through written correspondence with the coroner, the hearing ended. Just another afternoon of toil for Sara and Richard amongst many. The inquest will be hard as it will be day upon day of discussing their son as an object for legal inquiry. My heart goes out to them.
I can only hope that the jury find a connection to Connor, feel the same outrage that so many share about the casual dismissal of a life and demand that accountability is required.
If you are interested in the inquest process then you may wish to follow the newly established twitter account @LBInquest. We set this up to avoid overloading the main @JusticeforLB account. We will use it to live tweet as much of the inquest as we can, it will contain what people say not thoughts, opinion or commentary. The inquest will start on Monday 5 October.