What is the procedure when death occurs in police custody?

Death in police custody often raises a lot of questions, particularly for the family members wanting to obtain information about their loved one. The data can sometimes be hard to achieve regarding the circumstances of the death. The reason for this is that there is no statutory legal requirement act to investigate a death which has occurred in police custody. Also, there isn’t a system currently in place for monitoring or auditing deaths in police custody.

What is a ‘death in police custody’?

Currently, the definition provided by the Crown Court Prosecution Service (CPS) in the UK includes any death that occurs in police custody, prison, immigration detention, secure detentions for youths and secured hospitals. In certain occasions, death in police custody is valid whether the deceased was “in custody” or not but the death occurred in connection with police intervention. This means that any death that is directly linked to the police force is death in police custody. However, if a death occurs due to a road traffic collision, it is not regarded as a death in police custody.

These are examples of situations where the term ‘death in custody’ will apply:

  • If the deceased has been detained for a search
  • Being held at a police station or prison
  • Under arrest at a police station
  • Under a rest by a police officer (the location does not apply)
  • In any lawful detention centre
  • Being shot by a police officer (location does not apply)
  • If a young person is being held in custody for protection purposes.
  • Suicide in a prison, detention centre or in custody.
  • A fight between prisoners.
    If a death occurs in any of these instances, the identity or employment of the individual who played party to the death does not matter. The only exception to this is a fatal police shooting. If an individual was to die while receiving treatment from a police doctor, and it is proven to be due to negligence, then it is still classified as ‘death in custody.’ However, a death in custody will not be declared if the victim was compulsorily detained under the Mental Health Act 1983. This will only be counted as ‘death in custody’ if the individual was waiting to be transferred to a secured medical facility.

Who determines the death?

If any death should occur while an individual is in prison, or custody an inquest does not always happen. If the death seems to be unnatural, or violent, it will be referred to a coroner. The local authority or prison will appoint the coroner. It is the coroner who will then decide once inspecting the deceased if an inquest is necessary. The coroner will gather their evidence if suspicious circumstances are suspected and will present this to the court.

Who will investigate the death?

The investigation is dependent on the circumstances surrounding the death. If the individual passed away in prison, or in the non-police location, it is the police that will conduct the investigation. If the death occurred at a police station or during contact with the police, then it should be investigated by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC). The IPCC is entirely separate from the police and CPS. If it appears that any breaches of the Human Rights Act 1998, or Health and Safety legislation led to the death in question, then the HSE (Health & Safety Executives) will make their inquiries.

Can ‘death in custody’ claims be made?

Article 2 of the Human Rights Act 1998, states that everyone should have the ‘right to life,’ at all times. There would be no exception if the deceased were in police custody or prison. They should also be treated equally, fairly and with dignity. In the UK, every detention authority, and police force are required to carry out reasonable steps to protect an individual if there is an immediate or real risk to their life. There are times when these safeguards are not followed, and claims can be made for the police force failing in their duty.

Is there a time frame for making a claim?

There are timescales when claiming negligence, and they vary depending on the circumstances of the case. The typical timeframes are:

  • Six years for a claim of unlawful arrest
  • Three years if an assault has occurred
  • One year for any breaches of human rights.

    However, there will be occasions surrounding deaths in police custody where time limits can be extended. If you a family member seeking advice regarding death in custody, or feel you have a valid claim then speak to a member of our team at Gulbenkian Andonian Solicitors