Joint Committee On Human Rights Written Evidence

14.  Memorandum from the Law Society

  Thank you for the invitation to provide evidence to the JCHR's inquiry into Human Rights and Deaths in Custody. We would like to take this opportunity to make some particular points about the legal process following a death in custody.

  There is a positive obligation on the State to prevent real and immediate risk to life. Article 2 (1) of the European Convention on Human Rights, which has been incorporated into domestic law by the Human Rights Act, emphasises that the right to life "shall be protected by law". This requirement on the State includes both protection from the intentional taking of life as well as the requirement to take "reasonable preventative measures to protect an individual whose life is at risk . . .". [165]

  According to data held by the organisation INQUEST, 627 people have died in police custody since 1990. Between 1998-99, 65 people died in police custody, "the largest number of deaths in police care or custody on record", according to the Police Complaints Authority. [166]Although the figures have reported a decrease, this issue is still of serious concern.

  According to that data, since 1990 there have been 114 black deaths in prisons in the UK and in the same time period 67 black deaths in police custody. A total of 181 black deaths occurred while individuals were under the custody or care of the State. [167]

  The disproportionate disparity in the number of prisoners who are black and from ethnic minorities should not be ignored.

  Because of the sensitive nature of death in custody cases, vigorous independence must be demonstrated. Previous reports examining the system from death through the inquest have raised the issue of public perception regarding bias in decision-making of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). The number of deaths in police and prison custody and the lack of prosecutions have reinforced the real or perceived bias of the CPS. The obligation of the CPS to produce "cogent reasons for not issuing proceedings"[168] may assist the public in their perception of independence.

  The Society welcomes the establishment of the Independent Police Complaints Authority as a positive step towards building confidence in the system, and views the independent investigation of every death in custody as a possible homicide as essential.

  In addition to concerns of bias, families of the deceased have had to contend with considerable delays. There are countless examples of delayed cases, and many still awaiting closure, adding much undue stress to already traumatised families. For example, Roger Sylvester, a black man, died in January 1999 following restraint by eight Metropolitan police officers. His inquest began in September 2003, nearly five years after his death.

  David "Rocky" Bennett was a 38 year-old black man who died in October 1998 following an incident involving the use of restraint in an NHS medium secure unit. His 2001 inquest returned a verdict of Accidental Death aggravated by Neglect with recommendations from the Coroner on the need for national standards on restraint in psychiatric hospitals, and for staff to be pro-active in dealing with incidents of racist behaviour by and against patients. [169]Following calls for a public inquiry, the Government has agreed to an extended form of the usual inquiry that follows a death in psychiatric detention with a public element looking at the national lessons to be learnt. The inquiry began in March 2003.

  The Law Society supports proper initiatives to remedy the delays in investigating deaths and concluding proceedings.

  The Law Society has particular concerns about the effect on the ability of bereaved families to participate and feel included in the inquiry into the death. It has been documented that current disclosure arrangements at inquests fall below modern judicial standards in openness, fairness and predictability. [170]

  The Law Society supports the disclosure of information to bereaved parties throughout the inquest process.

  The ability of families to participate in the inquest process is greatly enhanced by the availability of public funding for representation at inquests. The Law Society welcomes the announcement that exceptional funding will apply to all deaths in custody. However, we are concerned about the practice of means testing wider family members in inquest cases.

  The Law Society supports reporting from the Coroner following an inquest to relevant authorities and monitoring to help prevent future deaths.

15 September 2003

165   R (Amin and Middleton) v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2002] 3 WLR 505. Back

166   Police Complaints Authority, "News and PCA Reports - Deaths in Police Care or Custody", 1999. Back

167   See INQUEST statistics Back

168   Rule 28 of the Coroners Rules 1984. Back

169   INQUEST (2003) Press Release: Public Sessions of the Inquiry into the Death of David "Rocky" Bennett. Back

170   Fundamental Review of Death Certification and the Coroner Services in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (2002) Certifying and Investigating Deaths in England, Wales and Northern Ireland p 13 paragraph 20.2. Back

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