Consultant linked to Tooting girl’s death in care may change plea over inquest no-show

A consultant who initially admitted failing to cooperate at the inquest of a mentally ill teenager who killed herself in care may be given an opportunity to change his plea after probation staff spotted an alleged error in the landmark case.

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Duncan Lawrence, 60, previously pleaded guilty to a charge of withholding evidence of documentation in relation to a coroner’s inquest, following the death of Tooting girl Sophie Bennett.

The 19-year-old took her own life at the “chaotic” Lancaster Lodge in Richmond, three years ago after comparing a new regime he had ushered in with that of a “bootcamp”.

An inquest jury found in February that neglect contributed to Ms Bennett’s death in May 2016, and that oversight at the facility was “grossly inadequate”, with Lawrence being fined £650 by the coroner for not attending the three-week hearing.

He appeared at Wimbledon Magistrates’ Court on Wednesday where his counsel said Lawrence admitted the offence at a previous hearing, during which he was legally unrepresented and did not fully understand the charge.

The defence has asked district judge Andrew Sweet to consider an application to vacate the plea – essentially allowing Lawrence to change his plea and start from scratch – to reflect that he did not intend to withhold information, they said.

It was only when a probation service official examined the case that they spotted he could not enter a guilty plea to an offence which required intent – something Lawrence denies.

Defence counsel Phil Anderson told court: “He considered he committed the offence because he didn’t understand ‘intention’.

“The real injustice would be convicting a man on a guilty plea when he did not understand what was going on.”

Prosecutor Colette Hanna accused Lawrence, of Sydenham, of “putting his head in the sand” after being issued with summons to give evidence at the inquest.

She told the judge: “The prosecution submit that you may feel Mr Lawrence has made a choice either by putting his head in the sand or by ignoring criminal proceedings – he seems to do nothing about getting legal advice.

“It must not have been a mystery to him – he comes to court unrepresented, enters a guilty plea, and is told that he could face a custodial sentence.”

Wednesday’s hearing was told coroner’s staff had previously made efforts to engage with Lawrence, but that a “dry run” for his appearance to give evidence via video link was thrown into chaos when a man half his age and of different ethnicity appeared on their screens.

Defence counsel Mr Anderson said his client was unable to explain what happened, but pointed to the “myriad” of problems on getting technology to work effectively in court. He denied Lawrence had arranged a stand-in.

The judge adjourned the case – the first of its kind, Mr Anderson said – until next month when he will decide whether or not the original plea can stand.

Ms Bennett’s parents sat in court throughout the hour-long hearing.

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.

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