Winterbourne View case – Bristol Crown Court

Interesting day today.

This morning, I decided to visit Bristol Crown Court and take in a few hearings, maybe view a trial. Having tried in vain as usual to find some information on-line regarding what cases were being heard, I decided to go along on spec as usual and see what was happening.

Now I’m used to seeing police vans, closed streets, groups of people and other occurrences outside court, but today brought an interesting spectacle when opposite the court, a protest was happening. As I wasn’t sure of its purpose, I nipped over and made some enquiries.

As it turned out, the protest was intended to highlight patient abuse in care hospitals, and was taking place today because one of the defendants in the Winterbourne View patient abuse case was due on trial.

For those that may not have heard of the Winterbourne case, in 2011 the BBC program Panorama presented an undercover investigation of Winterbourne View care home to investigate allegations of abuse by staff members against patients. An undercover employee was engaged by the care hospital, and events were recorded in secret.

What was discovered was a shocking and seemingly endemic catalogue of physical and mental abuse. Patients were beaten and tortured in varying different methods by numerous staff members, in particular the use of a chair placed on top of one patient while a member of staff sat on the chair for 30 minutes while also standing on her wrist. Other examples showed patients being doused with freezing water inside and outside the facility, and martial arts were used against patients without justification or lawful excuse.

The abuse documented appeared more for the personal gratification of the staff involved, and was heavily directed at a particular few patients. The result was that the hospital came across as a form of private hell for the patients involved, many of whom were not in a position to do anything about their predicament while their families were completely unaware of what was going on. The following video gives a glimpse of the Panorama episode.

Since the broadcast, as well as the hospital having closed down, 11 former employees of Winterbourne were investigated and prosecuted under s.127 of the Mental Health Act 1983 which makes it an offence to ill treat or wilfully neglect patients being treated for mental health issues, with a maximum sentence on indictment of 5 years, or an unlimited fine, or both. The program also generated substantial public and parliamentary debate not just on the abuse documented, but on institutional mental health care systems in general.

Now, although I watched the Panorama episode at the time, in the upheaval of finishing my exams last year, leaving my job, and relocating to Bristol this year, I had forgotten that Winterbourne View was in the Bristol area, and I had lost track of the story. I therefore wasn’t expecting to see this case heard today. However having seen the original broadcast I decided rather than view a new trial starting, I instead traipsed up 4 floors to Court 10 to view what was meant to be a sentencing hearing, scheduled for 10.20 a.m.

For ten minutes I loitered conspicuously around in the hallway outside the court trying to determine through a small window in the door the layout of the courtroom and location of the viewing gallery which I hadn’t been in before (all court rooms are set out differently at Bristol CC, some viewing galleries are in remote glass walled separate rooms upstairs from the main court room, some are to the left of the entrance in the courtroom, some to the right etc, so all are different). Basically I didn’t want to make an ass of myself bursting in mid proceedings, fly down, egg on face, looking bewildered and a prime suspect for being hustled down to the cells on an immediate contempt of court order.

So when a suitable gap in the proceedings appeared, I snuck in and took the only remaining seat in amongst a hoard of press reporters all scratching away at pads waiting for the Winterbourne case to begin. We would all have a long wait, and no doubt I should have paid more heed to the small print next to the schedule outside which read ‘not before 10.20 am’ next to the scheduled time.

As it transpired a couple of hours ticked by while Recorder of Bristol Judge Neil Ford QC waded through the mornings business of arraignments, setting trial and other hearing dates for what were a mixed bunch of cases varying from attempted GBH, stabbings, coshings, possession of weapons, one attempted sexual assault case, a drug possession case that had been delayed due apparently to the defendants alleged intoxication in court, and various other issues. Certainly nothing pleasant, but nothing out of the ordinary in terms of typical Crown Court business.

In addition, while these cases were being heard, a CPS press release was circulated around the press members stating that the 11th and final defendant Michael Ezenagu who was apparently due on trial (not the stated ‘sentencing’ hearing on the board outside) had entered a guilty plea to join his ten co-defendants who had all also entered guilty plea’s. This was confirmed when Mr Ezenagu was brought in for what had morphed from a sentencing hearing into a simple arraignment. His charges were read, he confirmed his guilt to two charges, and the court moved to book a sentencing review hearing for this coming Friday with the actual sentencing hearing dates to follow, which are expected to take up to 5 days of court time. Apparently all parties will be sentenced together.

With that, the hearing ended, and suddenly the entire compliment of reporters rose en masse to leave, effectively emptying the viewing gallery. As one they all scarpered out the door (no bows to Judge Neil Ford QC!), no doubt all desperate to get the drop on one another’s deadline before lunch.

I gave them a few minutes to clear the doors, then headed out to lunch myself. By this time the Crown prosecutor was outside on the steps of the court giving the low down on the proceedings to the media, a scrum of TV cameras surrounding her, and while I considered for a split second loitering around in the background for my 5 seconds of fame on Newsround, I headed off to meet Nicola for lunch. The protest outside had also finished by this time.

All in all it was a very interesting morning. Personally having seen the Winterbourne defendants ‘at work’ on the original Panorama broadcast, I’m particularly glad all 11 have pleaded guilty, and await news on the date for sentencing being set so I can attend, though I doubt I will get a seat next time.

Oh, one last thing, the Judge had apparently never viewed the Panorama footage, though I believe he mentioned that he would view it before sentencing. Quite surprised he had not seen it by now.

The media scrum outside (yes photographed sneakily on my phone while walking past!)

Mike Farrell-Deveau August 6th 2012

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About Mike Farrell-Deveau
Mike Farrell-Deveau is a Law graduate, Writer (Fiction, Copy and Journal), Business Professional and Musician with interests in Art, Politics, Human Rights, Social Justice, Access to Justice, Criminal Law, Employment Law, Clinical Negligence and making a lot of noise on an electric guitar.

One Response to Winterbourne View case – Bristol Crown Court

  1. Pingback: Hillcroft – Another care home abuse scandal « LawBlogOne