Woman whose body lay undiscovered for four years could have starved

Woman whose ‘mummified’ body lay undiscovered in her flat for nearly four years could have ‘starved to death’ after social services failed to follow up on police warning and posted her food bank letter instead, inquest hears

  • Laura Winham was found in a ‘mummified’ state along with her 2017 calendar 
  • Lawyer for her family say she may have been at ‘immediate’ risk of starvation 

A young woman whose body lay undiscovered in her social housing flat for nearly four years may have starved to death, a coroner heard today.

Laura Winham was found in a ‘mummified’ state along with her 2017 calendar on which she had scrawled ‘I need help’.

It was May 2021 when her ‘almost skeletal’ body was found after her family asked police to break into her flat in Woking, Surrey. 

Yesterday assistant coroner Dr Karen Henderson was told the vulnerable 38-year-old, who struggled with schizophrenia and physical disabilities, had appeared malnourished and without access to food when police saw her on October 6, 2017.

Laura Winham, who had schizophrenia, had scrawled ‘I need help’ on her calendar

Police officers alerted social services – but all they did was post her a letter about food banks, the court heard.

Yet Miss Winham may have been at ‘real and immediate risk of starvation’, said a lawyer for her family.

Kate O’Raghallaigh said Miss Winham’s last known food shop had been more than a month earlier, on September 4, and she told Surrey Coroner’s Court: ‘The police observed a lack of access to basic food provision…there is evidence of malnourishment potentially leading to starvation.’

Miss Winham was known to mental health teams and her flat was on a tree-lined avenue close to a parade of shops. 

Even years after she died, her rent continued to be paid through housing benefits.

Members of Miss Winham’s family followed yesterday’s proceedings via a video link. They have told how of their agony as their beloved sister’s schizophrenia produced voices in her head telling her they would harm her.

The 38-year-old lived in a council flat in this block in Woking, yet no one from social services or her mental health team had checked on her for three-and-a-half years

She became distressed if they came close, and eventually they made the heartbreaking decision to back away and let professionals take over her care.

Addressing Miss Winham’s brother, the coroner said: ‘I have met your sister and your mum, and I haven’t forgotten at the very centre of this inquest is your sister and, indeed she is a daughter as well, and I do wish to offer you my very sincere condolences for your loss.’

Miss Winham (pictured) is believed to have died in November 2017. She had to be identified through dental records and her cause of death was not established

The court is now seeking a gas engineer who could be a vital witness.

He supposedly conducted a gas ‘safety check’ at Miss Winham’s housing association flat in January 2018 – possibly as she lay dead inside.

Miss O’Raghallaigh told the pre-inquest review hearing that the signature provided on the engineer’s gas certificate did not appear to match previous examples of Miss Winham’s signature.

The hearing was told that efforts were being made to try to track down the gas engineer, to establish if he saw Miss Winham alive or not.

Owing to the length of time before her body was discovered, it may never be known exactly when or how she died, the coroner’s court heard. She had to be identified through dental records.

Through their lawyers Hudgell Solicitors, Miss Winham’s family are seeking to widen the scope of the inquest to examine possible failings by council services.

Both Surrey County Council, which runs social services, and Woking Borough Council, responsible for housing, sent barristers to represent them at yesterday’s preliminary hearing ahead of the full inquest which is likely to be held in April.

Surrey County Council admitted failing to follow up on the police referral, but said this was potentially the fault of a single individual rather than the whole system.

Miss Winham’s sister Nicky has said: ‘We always hoped she would get better with professional help and that one day our contact would resume. 

‘We never believed, for one second, we would end up finding her dead on the floor having laid there for so long without anyone knowing. Laura has been so badly let down.’

A further pre-inquest hearing is scheduled for March 15. 

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