The Role Of Expert Reports In Death In Prison Custody Incidents

A death in prison custody is always concerning

Many people who are detained by police are physically and/or psychologically vulnerable. Research published in the Police Journal shows that “force is disproportionately more likely to be used on people with mental health issues, and also disproportionately more likely to be used on people from Black and Minority Ethnic communities.”

Given the public and media interest in death in custody cases, it is vital to instruct the right experts to provide evidence during the inquest, investigation, and/or prosecution.

Death In Prison Custody

How can death in police prison custody cases be prosecuted?

In addition to prosecution for the offences of murder, manslaughter, and assault, prosecution for gross negligence manslaughter can be brought under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007.

Family members can bring civil claims under art.2 of the ECHR (right to life).  The Article states.

Article 2 – Right to life

1. Everyone’s right to life shall be protected by law. No one shall be deprived of his life intentionally save in the execution of a sentence of a court following his conviction of a crime for which this penalty is provided by law.

2. Deprivation of life shall not be regarded as inflicted in contravention of this article when it results from the use of force which is no more than absolutely necessary:

a) in defence of any person from unlawful violence;
b) in order to effect a lawful arrest or to prevent the escape of a person lawfully detained;
c) in action lawfully taken for the purpose of quelling a riot or insurrection.

Common law options include claims for misfeasance in a public office or negligence.

For a prosecution to occur in death and custody incidents, it must be shown that the deceased was in fact, in custody.

Death in prison custody statistics

According to the latest figures, in England and Wales, there were 18 deaths in or following police custody between 1 April 2019 and 31 March 2020.  This was up from 17 deaths in 2018/19 but in-line with the average figure for over the last decade.

Of the 18 deaths, eight people had some force used against them by officers or by members of the public before their deaths, although the use of force did not necessarily contribute to their death.  One death took place within a police custody suite. There were no apparent suicides while in a police custody suite. One apparent suicide occurred during an arrest process elsewhere.

What constitutes being ‘in custody’?

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) states that circumstances in which a person is considered to be ‘in custody’ include:

  • whilst under arrest in a police station;
  • whilst held as a prisoner in a prison or police station;
  • whilst under arrest by a police officer;
  • whilst being detained for the purposes of a search;
  • whilst in other lawful detention e.g. immigration detention (but not where the victim is compulsorily detained under the Mental Health Act 1983 except where the person is still in police custody before being transferred to a medical facility);
  • whilst a child or young person is in custody for their own protection;
  • as a result of being shot by a police officer; or
  • following any other ‘contact with the police’ where there may be a link between the contact and the death.

Suicide can fall into the category of death in police custody if it can be proven the those in charge were negligent in preventing the death.  In 2007 a police officer was found guilty of misconduct when it was found he was watching a film whilst a prisoner hanged himself in his cell.

The process of investigating and prosecuting a death in prison custody

If a person dies in police custody the matter will be referred to the Coroner who will carry out an inquest to determine the cause of death, one of which can be ‘unlawful killing’.  Deaths that occur at a police station or following contact with the police are generally investigated or the police investigation is managed by the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC).

Once an investigation is completed the evidence is passed onto the Crown Prosecution Service who will decide whether a prosecution should occur.

How Expert Reports Assist In Death In Custody Cases

The role of an expert report in death in custody cases, whether for the purposes of criminal prosecution or a civil claim is extensive, ranging from:

  • Examining medical records and other evidence.
  • Reporting on the physical and/or mental health of the deceased at the time of death.
  • Providing expert evidence on any alleged management or individual officer failings.

Not only is a death in custody devastating for family members it is extremely difficult to produce sufficient evidence and/or overcome the public interest threshold to secure a CPS prosecution.  And even if prosecution does occur, gaining a conviction is rare.  There have been no successful prosecutions of serving police officers for manslaughter, homicide, or assault, relating to the death of a person in their custody, since 1969.

A 2017 Home Office independent review found that in some cases, the CPS pursued a charge other than homicide, on the grounds that there was not enough evidence to prove it:

“Health and safety prosecutions in the context of a death at the hands of the state have, on occasion, been employed as an alternative to homicide charges in police shooting cases, most notably in the deaths of Jean Charles De Menezes and Anthony Grainger”.

Expert evidence is essential for both the Prosecution (or Claimants in the case of civil claims) and Defendants in death in custody matters. Few cases come before the Courts that are as important in relation to public trust not only in the police force but in the British government as a whole.

Talk to our experts

Experts who provide reports in such cases include Dr Stephen Attard and Dr Andrew Iles.

Expert Court Reports provides expert witnesses and medicolegal court reports for solicitors, barristers and other agencies including the police, probation services, prisons and third-sector organisations as well as private clients.  To arrange an expert report related to employment discrimination, harassment, or bullying, please call us on 01865 587865, email, or request a call by completing our online form.