Daniel Gauntlett, who froze to death on the step of an empty boarded-up bungalow, died in possession of a letter from a doctor calling on the authorities to find him accommodation as a person in priority need. Mr Gauntlett, aged 35, was suffering from a collapsed lung and was a heavy drinker, a coroner’s inquest heard.
There was also evidence that suggested Mr Gauntlett, who died during a freezing February night in 2013, had been arrested and evicted by police from a previous building. Witnesses said he had not been squatting in the building in Aylesford, Kent, where he died but had lived in the garden.
Campaigners have claimed that he was in effect a victim of Section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) 2012, which criminalised squatting in residential property. It had been suggested he “died as a result of obeying the law” because police told him not to squat the empty house.
It has been argued that Gauntlett’s human rights may have been breached either because the Government failed to put in place Article 2 European Convention (right to life) protections when it passed Section 144; or because the police or social services had failed to offer sufficient help to him.
However, the deputy coroner for Mid Kent, Kate Thomas, did not bring in a verdict under human rights “Middleton inquest” procedures, simply recording a verdict of “death by natural causes exacerbated by self neglect”. No police witnesses were called to tell the court of any contact they had had with Gauntlett before he died or whether he had indeed been evicted from a squat or warned not to enter the bungalow.
Mr Gauntlett’s father, Donald, told the court the last time he had seen him, his son told him he had been arrested at another house, in London Street, Maidstone, and as a result had lost some of his clothes. His father gave him money to buy new ones. He said his son’s alcohol problems began when his younger brother died in a road traffic accident at the age of 18.
A pathologist, Dr David Rouse, explained that Mr Gauntlett was sobering up when he died based on an analysis of the proportion of alcohol in his blood and urine. He stated that the amount of alcohol in his system was not excessive. He had the classic signs of hypothermia which include apparent bruising. He was not well clothed, but the pathologist explained that those suffering hypothermia are confused into believing they are actually warm.
The coroner read out notes from the local Accident and Emergency department which Gauntlett had attended on a number of occasions over the previous two years with chest pains, headaches and on one occasion alcohol withdrawal problems. It is possible that it was a doctor from A&E who had provided him with a letter “to whom it may concern” asking for him to receive accommodation as a priority.
A community warden who had talked with Mr Gauntlett four or five times during February, said Mr Gauntlett had refused advice on housing on a number of occasions. He had been urged to go to Gateway, the local council’s centre offering access to public and voluntary services. He had been given a duvet, which was found rain-sodden at the bungalow, and clothes by local people concerned about his condition.
Crucial police witnesses were not available to indicate whether Mr Gauntlett had been removed from the relative safety of squatted premises to die in the open air.
The warden had placed a tarpaulin over the bungalow’s veranda to give some shelter but this “was not a structure”, he said. He confirmed Gauntlett was not squatting the bungalow.
Investigating officer Detective Sergeant Booth was asked whether and when Mr Gauntlett had been arrested but said he did not know. He had not checked this, as he did not usually include people’s previous contact with the police in his reports. Instead he focused on whether anyone else was involved in his death, particularly in light of his bruised appearance. His investigation established that he had not been assaulted and he was satisfied no one else was involved in his death.
The coroner read a witness statement from another officer saying Mr Gauntlett had had contact with the police but this did not explain when or if he had been arrested or for what reason.
A report from housing officials was read out explaining that, despite the doctor’s letter, the law did not treat men in Mr Gauntlett’s circumstances as in priority need for housing. If temperatures fell to 0C or below for three nights, accommodation was made available but it would not necessarily be local and it was not explained how homeless people would know about it.
The first impression from this inquest is one of immense sadness. It is a tragedy for a family who have watched as a decent family man has been brought to wretchedness in this way.
It is clear that the inquest, on 10 December 2014, has not served his interests or those of people who cared about him or were concerned about his situation. Much medical detail, for example was contained in the A&E report but there was no chance for the family to consider it or clarify it. Crucial police witnesses were not available to indicate whether he had been removed from the relative safety of squatted premises to die in the open air.
The evidence from the community warden was telling. They helped, as far as they could as did people living nearby. But the tarpaulin was an acknowledgment of the terrible fact that squatting in a boarded-up home was an option denied to Mr Gauntlett even in desperate straits.
Very often inquests are a legitimate exercise in persuading survivors that they should not feel guilt. This was Kate Thomas’s correct approach regarding the family, who cannot be blamed for Mr Gauntlett’s death.
But by not undertaking a human rights compliant Middleton inquest she has let others get away without explanation of this death from the point of view of state agents whose responsibility at all times is to preserve life. The housing department statement was largely an exercise in legalistic exculpation. That the police who actually dealt with Mr Gauntlett were not available to discuss the circumstances that led to his death is shocking.
An earlier piece on the death of Daniel Gauntlett is here
The Squash Campaign has reported on the inquest here
More on the squatting law on Thinking Legally: How protection of property could crumble
And a piece also Daniel Gauntlett inquest: human rights issues and the ‘Middleton’ procedure
Also a piece on Ministry of Justice guidelines on Nearly Legal here.
It is correct that someone like Daniel Gauntlett does not necessarily fit into the category of “priority need” when it comes to housing. However, it would have been perfectly possible to consider him as such in light of his collapsed lung and possibly his alcohol problems – particularly if they were evidence of a mental health problem as suggested by his father’s evidence. The doctor’s letter was therefore important and he or she should also have been brought in as a witness. Addictions and rough sleeping have not per se qualified people as being in priority need as shown in this case reported by Nearly Legal. The UK Supreme Court will look at this case on 15 December to clarify the law. The Court of Appeal case is here on Bailii.
A government website says this:
You’re in priority need if
• you or someone you live with is pregnant
• ‘dependent children’ live with you (under 16s or under 19s if they’re studying full-time)
• you’re ‘vulnerable‘, eg as a result of old age or disability
• you’re homeless after a flood, fire or other disaster
The website points to a Shelter site for more information. This says on “vulnerability”:
Priority need if you are ‘vulnerable’
The council may decide that you are in priority need because you are classed as vulnerable if you:
• are an older person
• have a physical or learning disability or mental health problems
• had to leave your home because of violence or harassment
• have been in care
• were in the armed forces
• have been in a young offenders’ institute or prison in the past
If you need support but don’t have family or friends that you can depend on, this may also be a factor.
The council won’t automatically consider you to be vulnerable if you fit into one of these categories. For example, the council may decide that you are not vulnerable if you have an illness but it can be controlled by medication, or if you are over the age of 60 but are in good health. However, you may be vulnerable for other reasons.
Ministry of Justice guidance on squatting says:
“There might be instances where the police are asked to clear a residential building that is known to house rough sleepers. In these circumstances, the police might wish to liaise with local authorities and homelessness service providers prior to enforcement action to ensure they are ready to assist if required and give appropriate advice on housing options. This process is likely to work most effectively if protocols on joint working have been developed in advance.
In other circumstances, the fact that somebody is squatting to avoid rough sleeping might only become known once enforcement action has been taken. In these circumstances, liaison with local authorities and homelessness providers would ensure the appropriate advice and assistance is offered to the accused after the point of arrest.”