01:07, May 10 34 0 theguardian.com

2018-05-10 01:07:05
Family seek to replace 'sarcastic' coroner after autistic daughter died

A family have begun judicial review proceedings to replace a “combative and sarcastic” coroner they say is blocking a full inquest into how their autistic daughter died while in the care of an NHS-funded private care home.

Lawyers for Amanda and Andy McCulloch, whose daughter Colette was hit by a lorry after she walked out of Pathway House, Bedford in the early hours of 28 July 2016, have accused Ian Pears, the acting senior coroner for Bedfordshire and Luton, of unacceptable delays and bias against the family.

Merry Varney, a partner in the human rights department at Leigh Day, who is representing the family, said: “Inquests are often the main, if not only, route a bereaved family have to truth and accountability in a public arena and where there is a formal mechanism to prevent future deaths ... the McCullochs are asking the court to ensure Colette, a vulnerable adult who died in care, receives the inquest she deserves.”

The McCullochs have been fighting to secure a full inquest for their daughter since December 2016, when they claim Pears said at a pre-inquest review (PIR) that he would look at Colette’s death solely as a road traffic accident, without exploring any failings in her care.

At that hearing they said he told them that only one of them could speak for just three minutes. When Colette’s father tried to persuade him there were broader issues to investigate, they said he told him: “We don’t need to investigate how the lorry got there.”

After a complaint from the family, Pears refused to recuse himself. He then took seven months to deny an application for the inquest to look more broadly at how Colette’s right to life may have been violated, a decision he later reversed.

Months passed as submissions were collected and correspondence received from the coroner that the McCullochs’ lawyers described as “terse and sarcastic”. When Pears listed a fresh PIR date this June that several interested parties, including the McCullochs, were unable to make, he accused the couple of an “outcry of protest”, the family said.

A letter sent to the court by Varney claimed Pears had been dismissive of the family’s concerns. “The coroner’s combative and sarcastic tone and approach is causing Colette’s parents serious distress and has undermined their faith in the coroner’s ability to perform his judicial role,” she wrote.

“It is impeding their ability to effectively participate in their daughter’s inquest, which is at the heart of their rights protected by Article 2 [the right to life].”

The McCullochs have been forced to crowdfund the money for a judicial review, and the coroner – whose costs are met by the government – has refused to rule out passing them on if the action is not successful.

“We never wanted to do this,” McCulloch said, adding that he and his wife felt “the only way we can get a fair and fearless inquest – an open inquest – is by going to judicial review”.

He added: “This is not just for Colette. Since we’ve been involved in this we’ve come across so many other cases, so many people who’ve lost children, lost relatives – vulnerable people who’ve died while in care – and nothing has been done.”

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