Joint Committee On Human Rights Third Report


When the state takes away a person's liberty, it assumes full responsibility for protecting their human rights. The most fundamental of these is the right to life. Each year, however, many people die in custody. This report examines the causes of deaths in custody, and considers what may be done to prevent these deaths, and to better protect the right to life, and other human rights, of vulnerable people held in the custody of the state.

The report begins by considering the human rights standards which apply. Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights guarantees the right to life and places duties on the state to take steps to prevent deaths of people in detention, and to establish independent investigations into deaths in custody. The freedom from inhuman and degrading treatment also protects detained people from violence or serious neglect. These rights must be guaranteed, not through excessive control, but in the context of a system which also respects rights to privacy, personal identity and physical integrity.

The report assesses the scale of the problem, and the numbers of people dying in each form of state detention. It looks at the wider system in which these deaths occur, and concludes that measures to reduce deaths in custody are being implemented within a system where there are many acutely vulnerable people detained, especially in prison, who simply should not be there. Overcrowding in the prison system further hampers efforts to reduce deaths in custody. The principal reason for the increase in the prison population is sentencing practice, and the report considers the availability and recourse to alternatives to prison for vulnerable offenders, in light of the Article 2 right to life.

In the long-term, increased resources and a reduction in the use of imprisonment is needed to address the problem of deaths in custody. However, significant improvements can be made within the context of the present system. The report considers risk assessment of detainees, especially on admission to custody. It also assesses the provision of physical and mental healthcare in detention, and the human rights implications of inadequate healthcare. The report stresses the importance of maintaining a standard of healthcare equivalent to that available in the community. The provision of adequate treatment for drug and alcohol addiction in detention is essential in order to protect the rights to life and to freedom from inhuman and degrading treatment. The report also raises concerns about the detention of mentally ill people in inappropriate forms of detention, whether in prison, in police cells, or in immigration removal centres.

Although deaths in custody from the use of control and restraint are relatively rare, they are a cause for serious concern. The report examines policy and practice in the use of physical restraint in all forms of custody, and its compliance with human rights standards. It also examines the use of seclusion in Mental Health Act detention, in light of patients' human rights.

Training of those responsible for the safety of detainees is vital if deaths in custody are to be effectively prevented. Adequate levels of staffing are also a prerequisite of a safe custodial environment. The report makes recommendations on training of police custody officers, and on the training in control and restraint in all forms of detention.

Finally, the report considers how the state responds following a death in custody. The state has a duty, under Article 2 ECHR, to provide a thorough and independent investigation into each death in custody. This independent inquiry must allow for the full participation of the family of the person who has died, and the report emphasises the need to ensure that families are informed, supported and involved immediately following a death, and at all stages of the investigation. The report assesses recent changes in the inquest system, new mechanisms designed to allow for greater independence in the investigation of deaths in police and prison custody, and the reasons for the low rate of prosecutions following deaths in custody.

The report concludes by recommending the establishment of a cross-departmental expert task-force on deaths in custody, supported by human rights expertise, with the functions of: sharing information on good practice and developing guidelines in relation to the prevention of deaths in custody; reviewing the systems for conducting investigations into deaths in custody; developing good practice standards on training; reviewing recommendations from coroners, public inquiries and research and monitoring progress in their implementation; collecting and publishing information on deaths in custody; and commissioning research and making recommendations to Government.

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Prepared 14 December 2004