BY TOBY PORTER
A couple whose autistic daughter died while in the care of an NHS trust have won their battle to have her death fully investigated.
Grieving parents Andrew and Amanda McCulloch have succeeded in their fight to replace the coroner, who they claim was ‘dismissive and confrontational’, after an 18-month battle over how many factors he should consider at her inquest.
Colette McCulloch was 35 when she was killed by a lorry on the A1 in the early hours of July 28, 2016.
At the time she was under the care of Pathway House, a residential care home specialising in autism, part of the privately-run Milton Park Therapeutic Campus near Bedford.
The McCullochs instructed lawyers Leigh Day to take out a judicial review against coroner Ian Pears.
Pears has now agreed to stand down from the inquest.
The couple will now have their lawyer costs paid from legal aid, now that the hearing has been designated a Human Rights Inquest.
Merry Varney, the family’s solicitor, said: “Although this decision by acting senior coroner Pears is very welcome, it is a complete travesty that the parents have had to go through this.
“Had their concerns been listened to by the coroner in December 2016, their daughter’s death may by now have been fully investigated. Instead, with memories of those involved fading and opportunity for prompt change lost, they only now can look forward to a public, full and fearless investigation into Colette’s death.
“This case is a stark reminder why improvements to the coronial system and the treatment of bereaved families is so badly needed.”
This is the second time Colette’s parents instructed lawyers to judicially review the acting senior coroner and have previously sought the assistance of the Judicial Conduct Investigation Office, the chief coroner and the Judicial Appointments & Conduct Ombudsman.
Ms Varney said: “Colette’s parents have always believed that there were failings in Colette’s care and that her death was avoidable.
“They understood the inquest process would provide for a full and fearless investigation.
“Instead Andrew and Amanda have had to fight for almost 18 months with acting senior coroner Pears to ensure their daughter’s death is properly and publicly investigated.”
On 4 May this year, the McCullochs sent a letter before action threatening judicial review if the coroner did not recuse himself.
Their allegations included that a fair-minded and informed observer would conclude that there is a real possibility that the acting senior coroner was biased against the family.
“Their allegation was based on the coroner being generally dismissive of the family’s concerns; their correspondence being perceived as a nuisance and the tone of his correspondence being “inappropriately combative, adversarial and at times even sardonic,” added Ms Varney.
Through his lawyers, the acting senior coroner conceded the bereaved family’s grievance and stood down from the inquest. The family are awaiting news of the appointment of a replacement coroner so that finally their daughter’s inquest can progress.
Andrew and Amanda McCulloch said: “We feel we have had a lot of difficulty with Coroner Pears and we are pleased that we will now have a new coroner working on this inquest. From our initial hearing, we have found him to be dismissive. He did not answer letters, often for weeks, and his responses we felt were confrontational.
“He made decisions which impeded our ability to access legal aid and only changed his position after we instructed lawyers to threaten legal proceedings. It has been exhausting, stressful and involved considerable expense which we are very grateful to our CrowdJustice supporters for assisting us with.
“Colette’s death was completely devastating for us. But then having to fight a coroner like this to get justice has nearly destroyed us. Only the support of our dedicated legal team, and our older daughter, has kept us going.”
The money so far raised will go to the Leigh Day and Doughty Street Chambers to pay for all the preparatory work for the judicial.
“We had to have everything in place or he wouldn’t have taken us seriously. Our crowdfunding should now be over.”
Mr Pears’ office has said it would be inappropriate to comment as the case was still ongoing.
Main/top picture: Colette McCulloch with her sister, Chloe