Failure to check on Laura Winham a sign of ‘systemic’ problems, court told

<span>Photograph: Hudgell Solicitors/PA</span>
Photograph: Hudgell Solicitors/PA

Social workers’ failure to carry out adequate checks weeks before a vulnerable woman with a severe mental illness died alone in her home was a sign of “systemic” deficiencies, a coroner’s court has heard.

The body of Laura Winham, who is believed to have died in November 2017 at 38, lay undisturbed in her flat in Woking, Surrey, for three and a half years before the discovery of her “skeletal and mummified” remains by police and family members. Winham’s family has argued she was “abandoned” by local agencies.

Lawyers acting for the Winham family argued at a pre-inquest review hearing on Monday morning that the scope of the inquest – scheduled for April – should be widened to consider whether local public services operated “safe and effective services” capable of shielding Winham from “real and immediate” risks to her life.

They highlighted the decision of Surrey county council social workers not to conduct a face-to-face care assessment of Winham, despite receiving a formal police warning in October that she was malnourished, self-neglecting and incapable looking after herself or accessing help.

Although the council’s adult social care teams knew Winham was highly vulnerable, they made no attempt to contact her in person. They tried to call her – despite being told her phone did not work – and when she did not respond, wrote to her with details of a local food bank and support teams before closing the case two weeks later.

Under section nine of the care act, local authorities are required to formally assess an adult where it is apparent they have clear care and support needs. Surrey county council did not do so, despite Winham, who had schizophrenia, being at clear risk of starvation, argued the family’s lawyer, Kate O’Raghallaigh.

She also argued that Winham’s landlord failed repeatedly to adequately check up on her, despite being aware she had a disability and a history of mental illness. Winham’s flat was at the time of her death, and for five years subsequently, managed by New Vision Homes on behalf of Woking borough council.

Winham did not respond to calls, texts and visits by the landlord, which sought to enter the property several times between 2018 and 2021 to conduct gas safety checks. The landlord did not make welfare checks, despite having the power to enter the property. Winham’s gas supply was cut off in January 2019.

“The context is one which reveals systemic deficiencies [on the part of the county council and landlord],” said O’Raghallaigh.

The court heard investigators were trying to track down a gas engineer who registered a successful gas safety check at the property in January 2018, several weeks after Winham is believed to have died. Winham’s signature appeared on the safety check form although the court heard it did not match past signatures made by Winham.

Representing Surrey county council, Katie Ayres argued there was insufficient evidence before the court of “systemic failings” on the part of the council, although there may have been an “individual failing’ to carry out a care assessment of Winham after the police referral in October 2017.

Woking borough council, which took back direct management of social housing previously managed by New Vision in 2022, also argued there was no evidence to justify the coroner widening the scope of the inquest to examine alleged systemic and operational failings.

The Surrey county coroner, Karen Henderson, said she will make a written decision on the scope of the inquest in the next few days. A further pre-inquest review hearing is scheduled for March.