Coroner who hired his unqualified wife admits ‘failing to act with integrity'

Friday, 7th November 2014

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ON the outskirts of Brisbane lies Coopers Plain, a respectable suburb which right now will be feeling a little sunnier than autumnal Camden.

For those tempted to emigrate from London, there is at least one obviously appetising factor: for half the price of a two-bed ex-local authority flat in Camden Town, you can secure a comfortable three-bedroom house there, complete with a swimming pool for those roasting hot Australian afternoons.

It is in this suntrap on the other side of the world, the New Journal can reveal, that a coroner who has now admitted “failing to act with integrity”, being “misleading” and allowing his independence to be compromised over the appointment of his deputy, has begun a new life. 

Dr Andrew Reid ended his 10 years as the man in charge of investigating north London’s unusual or hard-to-explain deaths – one of the most delicate jobs in public office – after it was revealed he had recruited his unqualified wife, Suzanne Greenaway. The assistant deputy coroner’s job is a sensitive, and well-paid role, at St Pancras Coroner’s Court. 

He resigned just as a government-ordered investigation into his conduct was due to reach its conclusion. It meant the final report was never seen by public eyes. In the meantime, Dr Reid had received his publicly-paid salary during a suspension, despite admitting that he had made what he described as an “error”.

Under the Freedom of Information Act the New Journal asked to see paperwork from the aborted inquiry, run by the Office for Judicial Complaints (OJC), an arm of the government’s Ministry of Justice. We were told to forget that, that the information must stay confidential.

But this week, it was revealed that Dr Reid had been investigated separately by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, which, conversely, is in a position to reveal its findings publicly. 

And it said the coroner had admitted six breaches of an industry code, and had agreed to take his name off the UK’s roll of lawyers he first joined in 1995. 

In a settlement with investigators, he has agreed not to deny this misconduct in the future, or apply to join the roll again.

Among the list of breaches the SRA’s summary said he had admitted to were:

l Allowing his “independence to be compromised by appointing his wife as a deputy assistant coroner”;

l “Failing to act with integrity” in regard to responses to the Office for Judicial Complaints “which he knew or ought to have known were misleading”;

l Again “failing to act with integrity” by “not identifying there was conflict or a potential conflict of interest relating to the appointment of his wife”; and

l Failing to “deal with his ombudsmen in an open, timely and co-operative manner”. 

The cost to his bank account, the judgment said, will be £495 in costs.

It is a figure which may cause palpitations for those most annoyed at Camden Council about how the case panned out over several months. The Town Hall paid a share of his salary for those 10 months, between February and December 2012, while he was at home suspended during the OJC probe.

Cabinet councillor Abdul Hai said then: “We are disappointed that the Office for Judicial Complaints investigation has taken over 10 months, particularly as the taxpayers of Camden and three other boroughs have had to finance the salary of the coroner in the intervening period. I will be writing to the OJC and expressing my dissatisfaction with the process, length of time taken and seeking reimbursement of any costs incurred by Camden.”

There was also the cost of re-hearing a series of inquests that Ms Greenaway had heard. Beyond the cost factors, it has been argued that families should not have had to go through the often-distressing process of an inquest more than once.

“Dr Reid no longer resides in the United Kingdom,” said the SRA, in a section of its summary reports titled “mitigation”, which added: “Dr Reid has confirmed that he has no intention of practising as a solicitor in England and Wales in the future.”

Camden does foot the whole bill for this messy affair. The functions of the Inner London Coroner are shared across four north London boroughs. Spending on coronial services can be an awkward responsibility, however, and the council was forced to complain when it was landed with a £1million bill to host the inquest into the poisoning death of former spy Alexander Litvinenko, simply on the grounds that he passed away at a hospital in the borough. The money would have had to come out of the council’s overall budget had relief not been agreed by central government.

Dr Reid’s arrival in 2002 was seen by many as the start of a new era, with the arrival of a coroner who had twin qualifications in medicine and law and experience of holding inquests in Nottinghamshire.

His predecessor, Dr Stephen Chan, did not leave under a cloud, but the case of the so-called Camden Ripper, Anthony Hardy, had hung over the little courthouse, tucked away by the canal in Somers Town. 

A 15-minute inquest that Dr Chan had overseen into the death of sex worker Sally White ended in a “natural causes” verdict, later revealed to be patently wrong when Hardy admitted, from the dock of the Old Bailey, to having murdered her in his Camden Town council flat. Pathologist Dr Freddy Patel was later sanctioned for his own mistaken report.

Dr Reid, like all coroners, had sensitive choices to make during his time in the hot seat, dealing with families struck by desperate grief. Naturally, it’s a role where it is impossible to please everyone. He was castigated by some relatives of 7/7 bombing victims, for example, when pathological reports of their graphic injuries were sent out to families. 

Part of the problem can be  that families just do not know what to expect from a coroner’s inquest, as they only have to attend one if they are unfortunate enough to lose a loved one in unusual circumstances and so at a time where they are consumed with grief at their loss.

Media reporting on the procedures goes some way to broadening understanding of the inquest process.

But over the past decade, reporters were moved from a desk at the front of the St Pancras court to the creaky back benches.  They felt sidelined. It became increasingly difficult for them to find out when inquests were actually to be held. It is unclear on whose orders this was, but at one stage the court announced that the schedule would only be revealed on a notice attached to the front gate of the courthouse, a measure which seemed almost Dickensian in an age of email and websites. 

Sometimes when reporters arrived for a case, it had been brought forward, held an hour earlier to an empty court.

This changing attitude to the press did not necessarily exceed coronial powers and public sympathy is not overflowing  for journalists whose work is sometimes perceived as sensationalising inquests – and people’s deaths – for prurient readers. So concern about the changes  at St Pancras might have remained confined to the local press and have continued unchallenged had the relationship between the court and the media not been put under greater strain. 

And this is exactly what happened as a result of the huge interest generated by the inquest into the death of Amy Winehouse, the  singer who died at her Camden Town home in 2011.

The mass market in a global star was too big for the small chapel court, but, rather than switching venues, as has happened with other high-profile inquests, several journalists were instead locked out. When the calls went back to the newsroom that basic access to the story of the day had been denied, modern press folklore has it that investigative journalists began making a few checks on what was going on at St Pancras. The glare threw up the previously-undetected link between Dr Reid and Ms Greenaway, who had been given the task of overseeing the 27-year-old singer’s inquest.

While there would be no difference in outcomes when the inquest was re-run without Ms Greenaway, the sniff of anything fishy about the inquiry, given Ms Winehouse’s level of fame. was leapt upon by the world’s press.

It wasn’t that she had not worked in the right fields, but Dr Greenaway had not been aware that her experience as a lawyer in her native Australia did not count towards fulfilling the job requirements. She had joined the British Law Society two-and-a-half years before her appointment but, to work as a coroner, applicants must have five years’ experience in this country.

Soon after the Winehouse inquest she resigned. Her husband did not, however. He was suspended and the OJC probe began.

“The Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice had indicated their intention to remove Dr Reid from judicial office. Dr Reid was entitled to ask for a Review Body panel to review the Lord Chancellor and Lord Chief  Justice’s provisional decision,” an OJC spokesman later said. “The Review Body panel recommended Dr Reid should be removed from office. However, Dr Reid resigned from his post as a coroner and also as a tribunal judge in the Health Education and Social Care Chamber before the disciplinary process was formally concluded.”

Camden Council was stuck in the middle. The Town Hall oversees the coroner’s court but Dr Reid was in charge of appointing his own team. He had the freedom – part of the revered authority of coroners stretching back over 800 years, which meant  the court operated almost as a satellite council department – to simply inform the Town Hall of his choice. Camden rubber-stamped Ms Greenaway’s appointment without knowing she was unqualified or Dr Reid’s wife. Sources said it had all been accepted in “good faith”.

The only time Dr Reid spoke publicly on the matter was in a statement issued as the OJC probe began. “I appointed my wife as an assistant deputy coroner as I believed at the time that her experience as a solicitor and barrister in Australia satisfied the requirements of the post,” he said. “In November of last year it became apparent that I had made an error in the appointment process and I accepted her resignation. 

“While I am confident that all of the inquests handled were done so correctly, I apologise if this matter causes distress to the families and friends of the deceased. I will be writing to the families affected to personally apologise and offer for their cases to be reheard if requested.”

And now his name can be found, not above the door at St Pancras, but on the medical authorities’ registration of health practitioners in sunny Coopers Plain. Ten thousand miles away, the inquest over the inquests has finally been closed.

 

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