Coroner criticises ‘passive’ approach of Army to suicide and will issue a ‘prevention of future deaths’ report

11th Nov 2021

Inquest into the death of LCpl Joel Robinson

Before Her Majesty’s Senior Coroner for Berkshire Heidi Connor

Berkshire Coroner’s Court

Reading Town Hall

9-11 November 2021. 

LCpl Joel Robinson died on 25 March 2019. He was 24 years old.

He served in the Household Cavalry. At the time of his death, he was based at Combermere Barracks in Windsor, although he had recently returned from Germany where he had been based since June 2017.

Joel’s mother, Angela Robinson, describes him as a warm, loyal, sociable young man with a wide circle of friends. He was a very gifted horseman and it was his passion for horses that had drawn him to the Army aged 16.

In the summer before he died Joel made a formal complaint alleging that he was being bullied, harassed, victimised and discriminated against by his Line Manager. The inquest has heard that Joel described being isolated, humiliated, ignored, that he suffered ‘bitter, bullying behaviour’ and that his boss had threatened to ‘kick his head in’. This had been going on for many months. Joel had tried repeatedly to raise his concerns with his chain of command.  He described feeling ‘so lonely and depressed’ and said that the manager had made his life ‘a living hell’. He told a friend that a less experienced soldier faced with this kind of behaviour might well have killed themselves.

Joel sent a copy of his complaint to his mother. He told his mother and his friends that he feared the impact on his career of having made the complaint. In September 2018, Joel told his mother that he was no longer going ahead with it.

The inquest heard evidence of multiple serious breaches of the Army’s policies on the handling of service complaints and bullying allegations, involving at least six senior officers.

Some months later, despite a glowing annual report and having been recommended for promotion, Joel was passed over for promotion and given what he considered to be a ‘punishment posting’.

He died from hanging in his accommodation block in the early hours of 25 March 2019. When he died, he was very heavily intoxicated and evidence was heard that his chain of command was aware that he was drinking heavily.

Both the medical witness and MoD witness at the inquest confirmed that they would have expected senior officers to have referred Joel to the welfare or medical teams for help. However that did not happen.

After he died, his mother asked the Army what had happened to her son’s complaint. The Adjutant told her that the Army had no record of Joel being bullied.  Despite evidence that Joel’s complaint was shared with and between senior officers both electronically and in hard copy, no explanation has ever been provided by the Army or the Ministry of Defence for its disappearance.

Today the Senior Coroner concluded that senior officers were ‘wholly or mostly unaware’ of the complaints policy; and that ‘no trace’ of Joel’s complaint had been found.  She expressed concern at the ‘passive’ approach of the Army to its suicide prevention work and stated her intention to issue formal ‘Prevention of Future Deaths’ reports addressing among other things, the timeline for the Army to conclude its suicide prevention programme, and the need to address a lack of awareness in the Army on how to handle Service Complaints. She said: ‘Service Complaints are by definition when things are going wrong for a soldier and the raising of a Service Complaint may be thought of as a potential risk factor’.

Joel’s mother Angela Robinson said:

‘Joel felt worthless, worn down and exhausted. His allegations of bullying had been dismissed and based on what I’ve heard at this inquest and what Joel told me himself, I believe he was discouraged from continuing with it.  Bullying complaints like his are just not taken seriously enough.  I remain shocked that the only reason my son’s bullying complaint came to light was because he sent a copy to me. The Army would never have produced it themselves. Joel was also drinking far too much and the culture of binge drinking in the Army is a huge problem. Young soldiers are not being offered help quickly enough and suicide rates seem to be going up and up. Joel was very badly let down. I am glad the Coroner will be writing to the head of the Army, and sincerely hope that lessons will be learned from this and I would like an opportunity sit down and talk to the MoD about Joel’s case.’

The family’s solicitor Emma Norton, from the Centre for Military Justice, said:

‘This case has shone a much-needed spotlight on the experiences of young, vulnerable soldiers trying to raise serious complaints of bullying through their own chain of command. Joel’s complaint was not acted on properly and then appears to have simply disappeared. The Army and MoD will say, as they always do, that they do not tolerate bullying. But until they introduce a measure of independence into the complaints process – as was recommended by a review more than two years ago – sad cases like this are likely to recur.’

Notes to Editors

The Service Complaints Ombudsman for the Armed Forces, has repeatedly found the service complaints process to be neither ‘efficient, effective or fair’.  In particular, the Ombudsman has warned of the persistent evidence she has received that soldiers are dissuaded from making complaints or warned that it would not be in the best interests of their career to make a complaint.

The Army has a formal complaints process, which can be accessed here.  There is a formal bullying and harassment policy, which can be accessed here.  The policies in place at the time required the chain of command to check in on complainants around three months after they had informally resolved a bullying complaint, to ensure the behaviour had not recurred; and for a record of the complaint to be retained on both the unit records and on the equality and diversity logs for up to ten years. That did not happen.

In July 2019, the Wigston Review Into Inappropriate Behaviours recommended that responsibility for the investigation of serious service complaints alleging bullying, harassment and discrimination should be taken away from the single services’ chain of command and held by a new centralised Defence Authority. Despite initially stating that it accepted that recommendation, the Ministry of Defence has since resiled from it and confirmed that serious service complaints shall remain the responsibility of the single services themselves.

Legal team

The family was represented by Emma Norton, solicitor at the Centre for Military Justice and Adam Payter, counsel, of 6KBW College Hill

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