Early Tuesday morning I set off from Torquay to travel to Bournemouth Coroner’s Court. It’s a beautiful drive, albeit a tedious one at times, the A35 isn’t really built for heavy traffic. If you’re in a hurry forget it, the splashes of dual carriageway that dot it are always a few miles away when you get stuck behind a tractor or farm machinery.
Once you pass Dorchester the Dorset place names signposted to tempt you off the A35 up their game. First there’s Puddletown, then Tolpuddle, Affpuddle, Briantspuddle. At Bere Regis I contemplate turning off and heading to Swanage and Langton Matravers where Gaia and her family lived. I decide to crack on and think I’ll swing by on the way home. As I drove east with the sun glistening off the crack in my windscreen I couldn’t help but feel how wrong it was that Gaia was not here to appreciate such a beautiful morning.
The impression I’ve formed of Gaia from speaking with her cousin, Mya, from following the family’s campaign JusticeforGaia, and watching her mum, Natasha, speak on television and in person just this week, is that Gaia was a gentle soul. Looking at photographs, she’s a beautiful young women, often coyly smiling at the camera, with such light behind her eyes. She wouldn’t look out of place on a catwalk.
Gaia (the earth) grew up on the Dorset coast, with her twin sister Maya (the sky), older sister Clara and Mum, Natasha. A close knit family, her cousin Mya, was clearly a sister in all but name. It’s not hard to imagine this gaggle of girls sunning themselves on the beach in the long summer holidays of childhood, or yomping along the cliff paths of the Jurassic Coast.
Indeed, it is on these same cliff paths, on 18 November 2017 that Gaia’s body was found, after she went missing 11 days earlier. How does a young woman with her whole life ahead of her go missing, die, and not be found for days, all within spitting distance of the place she grew up in? These are the questions that the inquest will look to answer.
What we know to date is that in 2015 Gaia was raped. She reported this sexual assault to Dorset Police, who conducted an investigation and concluded that there was not sufficient evidence to provide a realistic chance of prosecution. Gaia’s mental health deteriorated and she sought help from mental health services for the first time, following her rape.
Dr Catherine Dicks, a consultant with the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services at Dorset Healthcare University NHSFT, conducted a mental state examination of Gaia in December 2015, raising the question of autistic spectrum disorder.
Caoilfhionn Gallager QC told the court there was a clear continuum in the decline in Gaia’s mental health following her first admission to hospital for mental health care in December 2015.
She described how Gaia’s mental health declined further and her distress continued throughout 2016. Gaia’s consultant psychiatrist, Dr Kannan at Dorset Healthcare (now formerly of), considered in December that year, that Gaia was presenting with post traumatic stress disorder.
The root cause analysis conducted by Dorset Healthcare after Gaia’s death revealed no referral was made for the trauma work that the psychiatrist recommended.
Gaia’s family contend that how Dorset Police handled the allegation she made about being raped had a direct impact on her mental state, and therefore must be considered part of the circumstances of her death for the sake of the inquest.
The Coroner was in agreement. Making it clear that the impact of Gaia’s rape, and the impact of that on her mental health, is relevant to her enquiries. However she was also clear that her remit is limited, and she will not be examining the way in which Dorset Police investigated Gaia’s allegation.
There are currently two separate investigations being conducted by the Independent Office for Police Conduct, the first into the Dorset Police response to Gaia’s disappearance, and the second into their handling of her rape allegation.
Gaia’s current cause of death is hypothermia, and the Senior Coroner for Dorset Rachael Griffin told the court on Tuesday that it was uncertain whether Gaia’s epilepsy may have played a role in her death, she is making further enquiries with a neuro-pathologist and will then decide whether her epilepsy management falls in the scope of the inquest.
At the first pre-inquest review hearing in February 2020, the Coroner decided that Article 2 was engaged and that Gaia’s inquest would be heard in front of a jury. At this pre-inquest review hearing she confirmed the full list of Interested Persons as follows:
- Family (maternal and paternal)
- Dorset Police
- Dorset Healthcare University NHSFT
- HM Coastguard / Maritime and Coastguard Agency
- Dorset Search and Rescue
- National Police Air Service
- Independent Office for Police Conduct.
The Coroner was clear that this is a provisional list and will remain under review, and will be revisited at a future PIR once she’s taken advice on the role that Gaia’s epilepsy management and treatment may have played in her death.
All of these interested persons are relevant to the coroner’s inquiries given the breadth of the scope of the inquest at this stage. Senior Coroner Rachael Griffin made it clear she reserved the right to keep the scope under review, up until her summing up of the evidence to the jury at the end of the inquest, before they are released for their deliberations. Current matters under scope are:
- Gaia’s personal and medical history
- Epilepsy management (tbc)
- Gaia’s mental health treatment (starting in 2015)
- Events from 7 – 18 November 2017, with a focus on 7-11 November when Gaia was potentially alive
- Control room operations at Dorset Police in that period and the prioritisation of Gaia as a missing person. Actions of Dorset Police Officers following the first call from Talia Pope (Gaia’s Aunt) reporting her missing on 7 November to the discovery of Gaia on the 18th
- Assessment of risk by Dorset Police, prioritisation of Gaia, missing person’s policy, training in relation to missing persons, and incident allocation procedures
- The relationship between the Police, Dorset Search and Rescue, and HM Coastguard, to include local memorandums of understanding and policies about working together.
The remaining discussion at the PIR was focused on disclosure, sharing of information, redaction and timetabling moving forward. You can read all the tweets from the hearing here if you’d like to know more.
The family chose to make the heart breaking request to delay Gaia’s inquest from the proposed January 2021 date to later that year, due to the impact of coronavirus and the late disclosure of information to date.
The Coroner was already considering the need for delay, mostly due to what we do not know about the impact of the virus this winter. The next PIR hearing date was set for 28 January 2021 and the inquest is provisionally booked for 8 weeks starting 10 May 2021.
After the pre-inquest review Gaia’s family somehow summoned the energy and clarity to speak with the media. You can watch the local BBC News report here:
As I drove home Mya’s words were ringing in my head. She said:
‘The waiting, the constant need to revisit and scrutinise every detail the most unimaginably painful chapter of our lives… its agony. On a personal level, we want nothing more than for this to be over. But truth and justice matter more… we know that there are really significant gaps in the evidence still, and the one thing we want more than for this to be over, is for this to be effective and prevent future harm’.
It’s a year to the day since I sat in Sheffield Coroner’s Court, next to Paula Rawnsley, on what should have been the second day of a five week inquest into her son Thomas’s death. It had become clear the day before that it was highly likely that Thomas’s inquest would need to be adjourned, to seek further expert evidence. You can learn more about Thomas here.
That day Paula’s barrister, Emily Formby, addressed the court saying:
‘Where my instructions from the family sit, is this has been long fought to get to here… there’s been much effort along the way from many people and to lose what is now set up is heart-breaking, the family would therefore wish for the inquest to proceed, but not at the expense of it being a properly regarded inquest’.
It was 5 years in February since Thomas died.
It is 3 years in November since Gaia died.
The trauma caused to families by the delays in our coronial system, amplified by the unforeseen circumstances of a global pandemic, can not truly be understood.
My view is that it is a testament to the love of these families, that they are able to endure this system.
They do so, adding to their heartache, for the benefit of us all.
I am grateful to my crowdfunders for their ongoing financial support for my #OpenJustice work, that enabled me to attend Gaia’s PIR on Tuesday.