Friday, 17 June 2011

Deaths in custody: Huge rise in London

Deaths in custody: Huge rise in London  [2.7391304347826]
The number of people who have died in London after being either detained in police custody or who have had recent contact with the police has increased massively since 2008.

The figures published on the Metropolitan Police Authority web site are staggering. In 2007 the total number of such deaths was 15. But since Boris Johnson became Mayor and Chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority Black and Asian deaths in custody has almost doubled to 28.  The figures have remained high each year, and since 1st April this year we have seen five more deaths, indicating that the figures are dramatically increasing.

This huge increase is deeply worrying, given the recent backdrop of police and community tensions in the wake of the suspicious deaths of Smiley Culture aka David Emmanuel and the tragic case of Ian Thompson; it is vital that the problem is tackled as a matter of urgency.

It is surprising that the media has remained entirely silent on this issue despite unprecedented rises. Other than coverage of Ian Tomlinson and David Emmanuel’s cases there has been very little coverage of these issues; this is why we need a public inquiry into all suspicious deaths in custody.

The Metropolitan Police authority and the Mayor should support the call to Government by having a formal debate and voting to support the community demand for an inquiry. 

The Smiley Culture campaign have recently launched a public e-petition  in support of the call for an inquiry that has so far attracted over 1400 signatures including some high profile celebrities.

The huge increase in the number of deaths and the fact that Government is seeking to introduce new changes that will result in further pain and injustice for victim’s families mean the need for reform is now urgent.

The Government has announced that it is to abolish the recently created position of Chief Coroner. This is a disaster for the families of those who find themselves seeking justice after the tragedy of a death in custody.

The Chief Coroner’s office was created as part of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009.  This legislation was introduced after significant lobbying by campaign organisations such as Inquest and supported by the families of the bereaved.

The Act established a legal framework for the wholesale reform of the process of judicial inquest.
The post of Chief Coroner was supposed to provide a single senior judicial authority with the power to introduce legal and policy reforms in an area that remains deeply controversial.

As part of the current Public Bodies Bill, a whole range of offices of state are being deleted. During a recent debate in the House of Lords serious concerns were expressed and as a consequence of lobbying 18 posts were saved and were taken out of the bill. Unfortunately the Chief Coroners office was not one of them.

The current Inquest process is not fit for purpose in relation to seeking the truth or delivering justice. The current lengthy legal process is stacked against the victim’s families, it’s both expensive and byzantine in terms of its complex procedural bureaucracy overseen by Coroners - an assortment of individuals with very little training or professional qualifications.

In 2001 an in-depth and fundamental review of the Coroners and deaths certification systems chaired by retired senior civil servant Tom Luce was undertaken as a result of serious issues that emerged in the wake of the Dr Harold Shipman mass murders.

The inquiry concluded that urgent reform was needed to ensure the rights of victims were placed at the centre of the judicial investigative process. The conclusions were damming and the subsequent recommendations led to the introduction of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009.

The Office of Chief Coroner is central to this legislation providing clear judicial responsibility and accountability for the performance and reform of the Coroners inquest systems.

The inquiry concluded that: “There is a lack of supervisory structures within the coronial service and therefore no leadership, accountability or quality assurance.” Adding:
“There is a lack of clear participation rights for bereaved families, and of standards for their treatment and support. They are largely excluded from the death certification process – they do not have a right, for example, to see the medical certificate of the cause of death. They are not systematically or reliably given information and help concerning autopsy decisions, other processes and inquests. The evidence disclosure arrangements at inquests fall below modern judicial standards of openness, fairness and predictability”.

The need to support efforts to retain this important post is critical and Inquest will be leading efforts to lobby the House of Commons to listen to the concerns expressed by the Lords.

Failing that, Government looks set to abolish the post on the basis of saving money, despite the misery, tragedy and pain caused by the intrinsic injustice that has become institutional.

Against the backdrop of a the huge increases in the number of families who find themselves suffering a death in custody and the growing disproportionate numbers of Black and Asian victims the Mayors Office and the MPA need to take urgent action to support these families and restore public confidence.

Lee  Jasper

(First Published at Operation Black Vote:
The Home of Black Politics