Death In Custody: Breaching Article 2? | tutor2u Law
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Death In Custody: Breaching Article 2?

Deaths occur in custody in the UK, whether as a direct result of injuries caused by others, or by suicide. In 2017, 23 people in the UK died whilst in custody, although in some cases this was due to issues such as poor health or drugs they had taken prior to their arrest.

However, Article 2 demands that the state owes a duty to provide a regulatory framework for investigating deaths in custody and they have an obligation to take preventive measures to avoid such deaths.

So, is Article 2 routinely being breached by the authorities?

In 2011, Kingsley Burrell, aged 29, died from cardiac arrest, following “restraint” by police officers whilst in custody in a psychiatric unit. Whilst restraining prisoners is often necessary, the use of force must be proportionate and should be done in accordance with training procedures, in order to prevent unnecessary injury or death. The inquest into Burrell’s death highlighted that such procedures aren’t always followed. In this case, Burrell’s face had been covered, to prevent him from spitting, but which also restricted his ability to breathe when restrained. A failure to provide adequate medical attention was also found to be a cause of the ‘preventable’ death. You can read more on the case here.

In another case, Jessica Whitchurch was found to have committed suicide whilst under supervision at Eastwood Park prison, following a similar attempt on her own life only hours earlier. She was described by the judge at her inquest as “vulnerable” and this therefore placed an even heavier duty on those who supervised her. This duty was breached as prison staff had not challenged the other prisoners who goaded Jessica into killing herself, whilst on a twice-hourly observations. You can read more on the case here.

In both of these cases, it is clear that more could have been done to prevent the deaths.

Following a death in custody, an inquest should take place in order to determine the cause(s) and to see what can be learnt for future cases. The inquest is led by a coroner, who occupies an independent judicial role and who analyses the evidence relating to the death, making a decision as to the likely cause.

An inquest is not a trial, however, so there is no civil or criminal liability as an automatic consequence. In holding an inquest, or simply by allowing the possibility for one, the “regulatory framework” under Article 2 is upheld.

Is this enough? Should prison officers and police face civil or even criminal charges when a death in custody occurs? How might you compare this with the treatment of doctors whose patients die unexpectedly?

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