Every year significant numbers of people die after coming into contact with the police. The nature and circumstances of these deaths can vary hugely, from road traffic accidents and self-inflicted deaths to a police shooting or a death following restraint. A death in police custody or following police contact should result in an investigation conducted by the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), and there will probably be an inquest.
The period after a death is normally a traumatic time for the deceased’s family. This is especially the case if the death was unexpected or violent. However, there are urgent legal and practical steps that should be taken to preserve evidence, enhance the inquiry process and try and ensure justice for their loved one.
Hickman & Rose is acknowledged as leading law firm in police related deaths. The firm has acted in some of England’s most significant cases, taking bereaved families through the various legal stages, including investigations, inquests, compensation claims and policy change and, in some cases, criminal proceedings against police officers.
The first practical steps for anyone who has lost a loved one following an encounter with the police should be to ensure they, or the relevant investigative organization, preserve evidence, including CCTV, body worn video evidence and early witness accounts.
The initial hours and days after a death are a stressful and emotional time. But this is also the period when material which can later prove crucial to establishing the truth about a death can go missing.
Some of this material may best be properly secured and preserved using a court order or request from a law firm that is expert in these matters. Depending on the nature and circumstances of the death the family may also want to seek the advice of legal experts as soon as possible.
Formerly known as the Independent Police Complaints Commission, the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) has responsibility for investigating deaths in police custody and those deaths where police contact may have caused or contributed to the death involving the police in England and Wales. An IPOC investigation will consider whether any person serving with the police may have committed a criminal offence or behaved in a manner justifying bringing disciplinary proceedings.
At the beginning of its investigation the IOPC draws up terms of reference which determine what issues it will examine. The deceased’s family has the opportunity to comment on these and can ask for the terms to be amended and/or raise new issues for investigation. The terms of reference can be varied in the course of the investigation as the evidential picture develops.
It can often be helpful for the family to obtain expert legal advice before engaging with the IOPC, and thereafter to have a continuing dialogue with the investigators to ensure that all the concerns of the family are investigated. Decisions made during the investigation’s early days can have long-lasting consequences.
The IOPC investigation can take many months and the family may have a varying quality of updates on the evidence by the investigator(s) during the course of the investigation. If the IOPC has certified the investigation as a criminal investigation, the family may find it more difficult to get information on the progress of the investigation (on the stated ground to avoid prejudice to the criminal investigation). The IOPC may bring the CPS in to advise on their investigation and in some cases to meet with the family. They IOPC may also instruct one or more experts to give an opinion on a particular issue.
Another issue that a bereaved family will have to grapple with in the period shortly after the death is the post mortem examination.
The family need to decide whether to instruct their own expert pathologist to attend the examination on their behalf. Although the Coroner is obliged to give advanced notice to the next of kin or the personal representatives of the deceased of the plan, date, time and place for the post mortem examination, often a family is not aware of their right to be represented, and/or is too consumed with grief to take action. If a post mortem examination has already taken place (and the body has not yet been released) then the family may have to decide whether to seek the coroner’s permission fora second post mortem examination to take place, and to instruct a pathologist to carry this out. These decisions are often best made in liaison with their legal team.
It is not always necessary to seek a second post mortem report in every controversial death, particularly where the cause of death is not contentious. However, a second post mortem can uncover evidence that is missed or misrepresented by the first pathologist. It is also possible for a pathologist to conduct a so-called ‘paper review’ of a post mortem’s conclusions after a body has been released.
The coroner has jurisdiction over the deceased’s body and will make the decision to release the body to the family for funeral arrangements to take place. There can be delay in the release of a body in these circumstances while tests may still be underway.
Inquests are investigations to establish certain facts following an individual’s death. They are presided over by a coroner and answer the following basic questions: who was the deceased? When did they die? Where did they die? And by what means did they die?
Deaths following contact with the police will usually result in an inquest. If there is evidence to suggest that a police officer caused or contributed to a death, then article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the right to life) will be engaged. In these circumstances, the inquest may be enhanced, to answer the question ‘by what means and in what circumstances did the deceased die’ in broader terms, and it will be before a jury.
For deaths in police custody, public funding is likely to be available, which can include a waiver of the requirement of financial eligibility, to cover the preparatory work (advice on the investigations) and representation at the inquest hearings.
The family of the deceased will be designated an ‘Interested Person’ at the inquest – a status which enables them to make representations to the coroner and access the relevant evidence.
At the end of an inquest the coroner or jury will deliver their conclusions. In police contact deaths, this will often be a ‘narrative conclusion’ in which the established facts and any causative failings are set out.
Hickman & Rose is one of the country’s leading law firms in this area. Our expert lawyers have acted in some of the most significant, and highest profile police death matters of the past twenty years.
Deaths in police custody cases in which the firm has acted, or at the time of writing still acts, include the deaths of Thomas Orchard, Dalian Atkinson, Darren Cumberbatch, Sean Fitzgerald, Sean Rigg and Azelle Rodney.
Our team is able to provide expert advice at every stage of the process following a death in police custody or police contact: from the minutes and hours after the death occurred, through the IPOC and inquest stage to potential civil claims for compensation.