Kent Coroner’s Inquest into the Death of Daniel Gauntlett

It was just under a year ago that the SQUASH Team got wind of the death of a homeless man in Kent, who had frozen to death sleeping outside a derelict residential property. After the arrest of Alex Haigh for squatting an empty housing association (L&Q) property, the death of Daniel Gauntlett (35) exemplified the injustice of the new law s144 LASPO, making squatting residential buildings a criminal offense. On further investigation, we found out that the police had spoken to Mr Gauntlett that day; SQUASH suspect that they told him not to try entering the empty bungalow on a freezing February night, or he would be arrested. SQUASH immediately put out a press release condemning the death: “Homeless Man Prevented From Squatting Dies” [SQUASH Campaign, 1 March 2013]

There was some media interest, but inevitably the story died quickly in the mainstream media; however housing campaigners did not forget and the death of Daniel Gauntlett became a rallying call for justice. Anger focused on Mike Weatherley MP, the originator of the new law (eg Is Mike Weatherley Dead Yet?), a man who had taken bribes from property companies to steamroll the law through the House of Commons and Lords. Mike Weatherley MP may have won the day, but the ghost of David Gauntlett has come back to haunt him once more….

The Kent Coroner’s Office will be holding an inquest into the death of Mr Gauntlett, and key questions they will need to answer are: “Was s144 LASPO to blame for Daniel Gauntlett’s death?”, and if so, “Did the state contravene his Article 2 right, namely his Right to Life?”. As s144 LASPO falls apart at the seams (what is proof of “living” or “intending to live”?), this human rights angle could see the nail in the coffin for Weatherley’s Law. However, before jumping the gun, SQUASH will be attending Gauntlett’s inquest, and encourage others to do so; it will be held:

Venue: The Coroner’s Office, Archbishops Palace, Mill Street, Maidstone, ME15 6YE

Date: Wednesday, 10th December 2014

Time: 1:30pm

Thanks to Alan Richards (twitter: @alrich0660) for alerting SQUASH to the upcoming inquest, and providing a link to the legal background for the case. Part of the thinking legally blog about the case has been reposted below. For the full article visit the thinkinglegally website.

Daniel Gauntlett inquest: human rights issues and the ‘Middleton’ procedure

An inquest is to be held (on 10 December 2014 in Maidstone, Kent) into the death of Daniel Gauntlett who died in freezing temperatures outside a derelict bungalow in Kent. The death brought the notorious LASPO anti-squatting legislation into focus. An issue likely to be considered at the inquest is whether Gauntlett’s human rights were breached: did the state owe him a duty regarding his European Convention Article 2 right to life? Campaigners have blamed his death on the LASPO legislation last year that banned squatting in residential buildings. They say he was barred from entering the building to protect himself from sub-zero temperatures last February [2013]. The inquest opens up the prospect of examining whether the legislation or the authorities acting under it bear any responsibility for Gauntlett’s death. For that the inquest will have to be held under a “Middleton procedure”. Where public authorities might have been involved in a death, the procedure allows the coroner to examine whether the deceased’s right to life under Article 2 has been breached. As well as a standard finding on cause of death (by what means someone died) the coroner may in effect indicate where blame might lie by considering the circumstances of the death. Campaigners want the coroner to look at how far Section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 might have been responsible for Gauntlett’s death outside the bungalow in Aylesford, near Maidstone. At issue might also be the behaviour of police or social services.

Gauntlett, 35, a father of two, had reportedly been arrested by police earlier in the winter for trying to break into the bungalow, scheduled for demolition. Campaigners claim he died as a result of obeying the law after police told him not to enter the building. (See the Observer). Article 2 of the ECHR imposes strict obligations on signatory states to protect life, saying: “Everyone’s right to life shall be protected by law. No one shall be deprived of his life intentionally save in the execution of a sentence of a court following his conviction of a crime for which this penalty is provided by law.” Arguably if laws are passed that result in death, they may be in breach of the convention since there is “a general positive obligation  to establish a framework of laws, precautions and means of enforcement which will protect life to the greatest extent possible” (see R (Middleton) v HM Coroner for West Sussex [2004] 2 AC 182 at paragraph 2). In Gauntlett’s case the inquest will be able to look into whether the authorities had a duty to protect Gauntlett’s life – in particular whether they knew or ought to have known of the threat to his life and if so whether they acted to protect it; and whether his life was “protected by law” – which opens the possibility of looking at the anti-squatting legislation to see whether sufficient protections are in place for those who might squat to preserve their own lives. In the Commons debate on the anti-squatting clause that became Section 144, the under-secretary of state, Crispin Blunt, noted that squats could be unhygienic and dangerous places, the implication being that this was one justification for rendering them illegal. But he added:

“It would be much better for us to introduce an offence that is capable of protecting law-abiding property owners and occupiers on the one hand, while working with other government departments, local authorities, the police and homelessness charities to continue to address the root causes of homelessness and to mitigate any impacts the new offence might have on the levels of rough sleeping.”

There is, however, no provision in the act to address the issue of protecting the homeless. This might arguably be seen as a breach of Article 2 duties – if Section 144 is deemed likely to increase the risk of deaths because it forces squatters to sleep rough, should some provision have been added to deal with this outcome?

More legal background, read the full article:

“Daniel Gauntlett inquest: human rights issues and the ‘Middleton’ procedure” [thinkinglegally, 26 Nov 2014]