I’ll start with an apology. I am very sorry, this blog post is long overdue. When I started crowdfunding my Open Justice work I always intended to report annually on my work, I did this for 2018-19 here and then life got in the way/ I dropped the ball.
In early 2020 I was caring for my lovely mum at the end of her life. Then I was hit with the triple whammy of grief, covid and the joy of probate. Inquests were briefly adjourned at the start of the pandemic, while the court system worked out how to hold hybrid and remote hearings. At that point I took a part time job and have been doing more freelance work in the last couple of years.
I’ve not let up on my Open Justice work, yet somehow I’m sitting here in early 2023 having offered no overview of activity or explanation of how financial support has been used in three years. I just haven’t prioritised it, especially given so much of my work is public. However I hope that this post will offer an explanation of the activity I’ve been engaged with, as well as an explanation of how money was used over the past three years.
Financial year 2019-2020
In April and May 2019 I spent 15 days over four weeks, in Winchester, reporting the inquest into the death of Sasha Forster. I received additional funding to support this reporting as part of my Paul Hamlyn Foundation Ideas and Pioneers Grant.
After Sasha’s inquest I conducted a survey to gather feedback, you can read a write up of it’s findings here:
You can also read a guest blog post from Sasha’s mum, Angela, reflecting on their decision making in asking to have Sasha’s inquest live tweeted, and the experience for her. Here’s a couple of extracts:
After a long tussle, and discussions not only within our family but also with our legal team, we agreed. One of the most important points for all of us, was George’s absolute impartiality, which we knew from past experience. Somehow it was vital that Sasha’s inquest story was told without influence from either her family or the mental health professionals involved in her care.
In agreeing to the live tweeting, I felt that Sasha would approve. She would prefer for people to know about what happened to her, to expose her treatment. She would want for people to listen, to try and understand, in the hope that they would learn, so that no one else would have to suffer as she did.
Afterwards, I didn’t regret the decision to live tweet for a moment. I felt relieved, not just because it was all over, but because that was it, it was all out there, everything. I didn’t need to ‘hold’ onto it any longer and the burden of information was taken from me, leaving me free to grieve for the loss of my brilliant, sassy, loving, gorgeous girl.
Three inquests that I was due to report were adjourned at the last minute (and one of those has still not been heard as I write this in January 2023). Additionally I had booked to attend Thomas Rawnsley‘s inquest for 5 weeks, however it was adjourned on the second day of the hearing in September 2019, eventually concluding over a year later in November 2020.
I attended 3 pre-inquest review hearings, one in London, one in Sheffield and one in Worcestershire. I attended and live tweeted the Leigh Day A Fair Hearing conference in July 2019. I had contact with a large number of families who were trying to secure an inquest or some way through the inquest process, and had contact with a number of journalists, linking them into families and also trying to ensure that they covered inquests (especially where it was not possible for me to do so).
In later October 2019 my mum received a very late, terminal cancer diagnosis. I’d been providing her with additional support throughout the year but never anticipated that she had months to live. I did no Open Justice work, beyond contact with bereaved families, from October until her death the following February. In March 2020 the first covid lockdown happened and most of the cases I was following were stalled again.
Financial year 2020-2021
Again, three inquests I was due to report were adjourned at the last minute (including one postponed the previous year, that has still not been heard as I write this in January 2023 due to criminal proceedings).
Frustratingly, due to covid restrictions and a ‘limitation of phone lines’ that prevented media being able to attend Thomas Rawnsley‘s rescheduled inquest remotely, I was unable to live tweet Thomas’s inquest in November 2020. Although I wrote this about his mum, Paula, in the run up, was in touch with her most days, and you can read about Thomas here. It was possible to attend remotely and report on the Coroner’s summing up and conclusion that found Thomas died from natural causes.
Immediately following Thomas’s inquest I remotely attended Joanna Bailey’s inquest. You can learn about Joanna here following a conversation I had with her dad, Keith. I joined Joanna’s inquest part way through the week and was able to live tweet Day 3, Day 4 and Day 5 here. The jury were instructed to find that Joanna died as a result of natural causes, SUDEP. Which they did, supplementing that with 11 areas that they were concerned about in relation to the care that Joanna received.
In January 2021 I was unable to attend Matthew Copestick’s inquest remotely as Rochdale’s version of MS Teams didn’t allow for an audio connection, however the Coroner kindly agreed to share her ruling at the end of the inquest. She found Matthew Copestick died as a result of sudden and unexpected death in alcohol dependency, as a result of alcoholic fatty liver disease. The court heard a number of conflicting accounts from the staff of his care provider, Turning Point, and NHS staff, which the coroner could not reconcile, finding that Matthew should never have been declared medically fit in the first place, and that there was ‘no adequate assessment’ as to whether Matthew required an inpatient admission for alcohol detoxification.
In February 2021 I attended the inquest into the death of Rachel Johnston. I was not able to make contact with Rachel’s family in advance of her inquest so did not feel comfortable live tweeting, instead I reported via daily blog posts which can all be read on the link above. You can read about the coroner’s summing up and conclusion here, he found that Rachel died as a result of complications of necessary surgery, to which neglect contributed. He also found:
Nursing staff a Pirton Grange failed to carry out adequate physiological observations on Rachel after her discharge from dental surgery, and failed to seek emergency assistance
Had emergency assistance been sought she probably would have survived and not died when she did.
The following month I returned to court for the Prevention of Future Deaths Hearing, that saw Coroner David Reid issuing a PFD to the care provider.
In addition to reporting on those four inquests, I also attended and reported (where possible) from 8 pre inquest review hearings, 2 judicial review hearings (#SENDCovid and AP v Oxford Health), and 1 criminal prosecution hearing. I had telephone, video call and email contact with a number of bereaved families, and with several journalists. In autumn 2020 I made a submission to a parliamentary inquiry on The Coroner Service. You can read more here. I wrote 37 blog posts, was involved in one crowdfunded legal case #EveryDeathCounts, submitted one (unsuccessful) funding bid, supported the brilliant Louise Tickle to organise with Bath Publishing a series of webinars Law, Justice and the Spaces Between, and had numerous conversations with William Kremer and his team from the BBC who produced this film about my work.
Financial year 2021-2022
This was my busiest year to date, while covid presented some delays and challenges to the court system, for myself personally, it enabled me to report more widely from courts that I might normally have struggled to attend, it also reduced the financial burden and allowed me on some occasions to report back to back from different cases which would never be possible in person.
Consequently I covered 9 inquests, Laura Booth in April 2021, Peter Seaby in August 2021, Danny Willgoss in September 2021, Elsie Brooks in November 2021, Sammy Alban Stanley in November 2021, Coco Bradford in December 2021 and January 2022, Andrew Marber in January 2023, Christina Saleh in March 2022 and Jared Botham in March 2022. I also attended court (reporting where possible) for 8 pre inquest review hearings, on 5 occasions relating to two criminal cases and reported from William Verden’s 4 day Court of Protection hearing.
I spent 58 days in court last year and recorded a further 28.5 days doing other activities such as writing 17 blog posts, filming 56 video blogs, reporting and discussing cases on social media, speaking with families and speaking with journalists.
In May 2021 I recorded a podcast for The Justice Gap which you can listen to here Tweeting Justice. The same month, I also travelled to Kent for a pre inquest review hearing into the death of Sammy Alban Stanley, you can read the report of the PIR here ‘The Chilling Effect of Disclosure’ at Kent County Council.
I was so annoyed and concerned at the risk I was exposed to by being required to travel from Devon to Kent to attend a PIR during lockdown, when every sign I passed on the motorway said only to travel if absolutely essential, that I took legal advice (from Shirin Marker and Amy O’Shea at Bindmans and Jude Bunting KC at Doughty Street) and a pre-action letter was sent to the coroner. This led to the reversal of their position and my attendance at a later PIR and in time Sammy’s inquest, remotely.
Also in Summer 2021, together with Adela Whittingham, Court Reporter for Reach, we conducted a short online survey with journalists to gather their experiences of open justice and coroners courts during the covid pandemic. The findings can be read here.
I reported on the Cawston Park Safeguarding Adults Review in September 2021 and in November 2021 I made a submission to a parliamentary inquiry on Open justice: court reporting in the digital age, referencing the results of the survey conducted earlier that year.
I haven’t totted up the exact number of conversations or amount of time spent communicating with bereaved families, I might start doing so from now on, but I know I was in contact with at least 16 families in 2019-20, 16 in 2020-2021 and 11 in 2021-2022. Some of this contact never results in any reporting, often families contact me because they don’t know who else to speak to, or because they’re concerned that an inquest hasn’t been opened, or because NHS Trusts are bombarding them with what feels like a cover up to them.
So that’s my last three years in terms of activity, reporting from 15 inquests and 19 pre inquest review hearings, 2 judicial review hearings, 2 criminal cases and 1 Court of Protection case. Submissions to 2 Parliamentary Inquiries, 59 written blog posts and 56 video blogs.
The final thing to mention is that following discussions with journalists during 2019 and 2020, having sat in court on several occasions where barristers for care providers have attempted to have me excluded from proceedings, I decided to apply for membership of the NUJ. I have been ‘officially’ working as a journalist since they accepted me. Which gives me more rights to report. It has also resulted in me professionalising up a bit, swearing less, and trying to contain the rage. I’m not sure it’s changed my reporting, I always strove to be fair and accurate.
What about the money?
In 2019-20 I received a total of £9,093.21, most of which came from 64 monthly supporters, although £1,115 was from 22 one-off supporters. I used funding from Paul Hamlyn Foundation to cover the costs of live tweeting Sasha’s inquest. Other travel and accommodation costs were £1,035.79 and I logged 376 hours (or 47 days) which I paid myself at £125 per day. Due to caring responsibilities I wasn’t working for 5 months of that year, so the time spent and consequently the amount claimed is lower than normal, and I carried forward £2,182.42 into the following financial year.
I want to just discuss what I pay myself, as it has changed over time. When I published the blog post reporting on my costs for 2018-19 back in May 2019 I received some useful challenge about how little I was charging for my time (£9 per hour, which was the living wage). It was pointed out to me that I am highly educated and skilled, and whilst wanting to stretch the money to pay the costs of my Open Justice work, I was actually devaluing my own self, and worst still at risk of devaluing others by giving the impression that work should be remunerated so poorly. This really made me stop and think, and my compromise was upping my day rate in 2019-20 to £125 per day, which works out at £15.62 per hour.
During 2020 I was looking into the long term viability of my reporting due to the financial support I received from the PHF Ideas and Pioneers Grant I received. I also had to be more realistic about the emotional cost of doing this work and be honest about the toll it was taking on me. My solution to not earning enough was to up my consultancy work to subsidise my Open Justice reporting, but the downside of that is it’s a) not guaranteed and b) also requires time and investment, so it has meant that I am working ridiculously long hours to be able to afford to do my Open Justice reporting. In an attempt to address these concerns, since 2020-21 I have charged my time out at £200 per day or £25 per hour.
I started 2020-21 with £2,182.42 in the kitty and received £11,446.23 additional in the year (£7,156.23 from my 57 monthly supporters and £4,290 from 84 one-off supporters). It was towards the end of the financial year, in February 2021 that the BBC featured my work, and well over half of that one off support came at that time. I use the term one-off support simply to refer to those who support via the Chuffed platform where I receive most of my lump sum donations, but it’s actually the wrong term because I know a number of people supporting there are repeat donors. Additionally I have some people who very kindly forward on vouchers that they’ve received as payment for their own participation or work, so for example, all my stationery costs have been covered by gifted Amazon vouchers in the last few years.
My expenditure changed considerably from 2020 onwards, as I was (mostly) able to join court remotely. My travel costs were only £107 but I started charging some of my administrative costs, such as accounting software, phone bills, a percentage towards broadband and I had to buy a new phone as my old brick simply failed to have enough battery life to deal with day long phone calls (£908). My total expenditure in 2020-21 was £1,875.77 and I logged 443.5 hours (or 55.5 days) at £200 per day. Which meant I was left with £652.88 to carry forward into the next financial year.
I started 2021-22 with £652.88 and received £12,212.30 in the year (£8,132.30 from my 53 monthly supporters and £4,080 from 107 one-off supporters). I had to attend court in person on a couple of occasions this year (£346.44 on travel and accommodation), but I also did a considerable amount of remote reporting which resulted in some one off costs, like a proper chair (when I’m live tweeting my hands and wrists take a total battering, especially on the occasions when I had back to back inquests, I decided that at the very least a proper adjustable chair might help with posture £120 in Ikea nothing too fancy, and I’ve so far resisted the height adjustable desk). I needed a new laptop and charged 50% of the cost to my Open Justice work (£834), other administrative costs (phone, % of broadband costs, accounting software etc) were £695.95.
As mentioned above I also took legal advice about judicially reviewing the Kent Coroner, and was very grateful to know that I had crowdfunded income that could support such action. The legal fees, offered at a reduced rate, were £960. By far my largest expenditure was my time. I spent 692 hours on my Open Justice work (86.5 days) at £200 per day. My total expenditure in 2021-22 was £20,256.39.
This means I carried a loss of £7,391.21 into this current financial year. The observant amongst you will notice that deficit is almost equal to all my monthly support for the following year, and the super observant will note that the number of monthly supporters has declined over time. That decline is inevitable given the hostile financial environment people are trying to survive in at the moment, I am also remarkably humbled that some of my monthly supporters have increased their support over time, and a number of one-off supporters have returned to support again.
I’m not necessarily anticipating that I’ll be able to be paid for that work, I suspect I’ll write that off as a loss. In many ways I felt I had no choice, many of the inquests I reported last year were ones that had been adjourned on multiple occasions, I’d known the families for years and already attended pre inquest review hearings and was invested in ensuring that what happened was shared with a wider audience. Likewise cases as important as William Verden’s Court of Protection case, about whether he should receive a kidney transplant, which incidentally was a huge success (see this update from the brilliant Jayne McCubbin), despite the concerns raised that he wouldn’t be able to tolerate treatment, I felt needed to be shared.
I’ll let you into a secret, I’m doing this retrospective report now, but it’s the first time I’ve actually worked out what time I’d spent in 2020-21, I knew that it was a lot, because I felt it, physically and emotionally, but I just logged things in the time tracking section of my accounting software, and never went back to balance the books. I knew I’d also done more freelance work to subsidise it, or at least to cover my costs of existing, so I knew I’d do the work regardless of what income came in.
I have a number of wiser people in my life who regularly advise me against taking such a relaxed (foolish) approach. I’ve not paid into a pension for years, I’m not putting money aside for my tax bill, I don’t have any sort of contingency for sick pay (that’s the one that worries me the most at the moment). I live a very modest existence, I have caring responsibilities that mean I can’t easily leave home for more than the odd night, and my work, especially this Open Justice work, probably holds way too much importance in my life, but I believe it matters and needs done, first and foremost.
Crowdfunding support for this Open Justice work provides not just the financial support, but also assures me that there’s a wider interest in it and that people want it done. That is priceless to me. Moving forward I’m not sure what the future looks like, it is fundamentally tied to Twitter, which I am finding a conflicting space at the moment (and very glitchy). At the core of my Open Justice work is transparency and Elon Musk seems to have some interesting ideas about that and some pretty aggressive approaches to silencing journalists.
How can the woman who live tweets inquests, survive in a post twitter world? I’m not sure. For now I’m still there, occasionally, am looking at uploading some of my twitter videos onto YouTube, and trying to blog more and use this space as somewhere to report from.
Maybe I’ll come to the decision that my work here is done, but not for the immediate foreseeable as I’ve at least 5 upcoming inquests, and it doesn’t seem like people are dying any less prematurely and preventably. I’ve toyed with writing a book, with trying to collaborate with others to find new spaces to share my reporting, I don’t know.
I’m not sure what the next three years look like, but this is the past three, and I have to finish with my thanks. First and foremost thanks to those of you who have supported my work financially, in kind, or by sharing it and spreading the word.
I couldn’t do this work without my friends and those who support me, it takes a toll, I’m not sure how sane I’d be without the back channel of friends, families I’ve worked with previously, researchers, journalists and legal wizards, who reassure me that it’s needed and that I’m not just contributing to the noise.
Finally, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the bereaved families who ‘allow’ me to report from their loved ones inquests (strictly I don’t require permission, but I don’t live tweet unless I’ve heard from a family or their legal representatives that they wish for it to happen) and who share their experience with the world, nearly always with the hope that it would prevent it happening to anyone else. That’s the future we’re all working towards.