At the end of March 2015, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, wrote a letter to the families of two people who died in police custody following police restraint. Those in question, Sean Rigg and Olaseni Lewis, died in 2008 and 2010 respectively.
In both cases the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) cleared those officers involved of wrongdoing, only for the finding to be quashed in both instances, and the investigations reopened.
In her letter Theresa May writes of three main issues currently affecting the ability of families to obtain justice where a loved one has died in police custody: the perception regarding the independence of the IPCC; legal difficulties which prevent the IPCC from reopening a case which has previously been concluded; and concerns over legal aid for families seeking justice in such matters.
Theresa May wrote that:
“I know there were very real concerns about the work of the IPCC and its perceived independence.”
Theresa May informs the families that a follow-up report to the IPCC’s March 2014 publication; Review of the IPCC’s Work in Investigating Deaths, will soon be published to report on their Action Plan. The Action Plan includes:
“[A] new model for family liaison, measures to improve communications with the wider public, and to increase the diversity of their staff.”
The report will then be studied by the Home Office to determine whether acceptable progress has been made.
The second issue addressed is the legal barrier in place, which prevents the reopening of concluded investigations by the IPCC. Theresa May wrote the following:
“There is also the important issue of the legal barrier that prevents the IPCC reopening a case that has previously been concluded. It is clearly unsatisfactory that families should have to go to court to quash an IPCC report in order to secure a second investigation into the death of a loved one. On 6th March 2015 the High Court ruled on an application by the IPCC to reopen a case involving an allegation of police assault (Demetrio v IPCC). The High Court agreed that the IPCC could reopen certain aspects of a case if there was a ‘compelling reason’ and that previous decisions were ‘not irrevocable’. My officials are working with the IPCC to explore whether this will allow them to reopen concluded cases, or if further changes will still be needed.”
This matter is of immense importance provided the lack of trust in the IPPC’s ability to come to a reasoned, unbiased, and accurate conclusion regarding officers’ behavior in the first instance. If a decision is questionable, even simply because of the reputation of the body that has made it, and there is no mechanism, or a protracted process for appeal or reconsideration of that decision, then the body will lack legitimacy in the first instance, and the families of those affected will find justice difficult to obtain.
The third aspect is the restrictions on access to legal aid for those families who wish to challenge the decisions of the IPCC. If the reopening of an investigation requires the family to obtain a judgment from the High Court, or to fund an inquest, then it is clearly an enormous imposition on the family to have to fund the legal expenses, even with partial help from legal aid.
Theresa May wrote on the matter:
“I know [funding for legal representation at inquests] is an important and longstanding concern to families who want answers. The February 2014 judicial review brought by Joana Letts at the High Court resulted in a ruling that more legal aid should be made available to bereaved families for representation at inquests. We will look sympathetically at the implications of this ruling, and my officials will be holding discussions with the Ministry of Justice to see if we can make real progress on this issue.”
Sean Rigg’s sister has said the following:
“While the police and two other state bodies received automatic funding out of the public purse, we had to go through an extremely intrusive legal aid process which included the incomes of all of Sean’s siblings, their partners, and our mother.”
“This is unacceptable as it can mean families, who simply want to find out what has happened to their loved one, are not on a level playing field with state bodies.”
There is a more fundamental injustice inherent within this circumstance. As is often the case, the accusation of malfeasance on the part of a state body (the police) requires the individual to muster the resources to challenge the accused’s alleged wrongdoing through an expensive legal process, while those accused are backed with the vast resources of the state. Therefore the families are victimised twice: once by the loss of their loved one, regardless of whether the conduct of the police was within the parameters of what is considered to be acceptable force; and secondly, by an inability to receive answers as to the circumstances of their death, and obtain justice for their loss.
In the case of Sean Rigg, the family was told that they had to contribute £21,000 to receive a lawyer from legal aid for the inquest, which exposed flaws in the original IPCC investigation. In circumstances of alleged state malpractice, the state must, at a minimum, provide equality of access to justice, especially when for inquests into deaths in custody. Whether this is through legal aid, or fully state funded inquests, those affected cannot be barred from the system because of a lack of funds, or bankrupted to obtain answers.
Deborah Coles, Co-Director of Inquest, made the following remarks:
“After decades of indifference from successive governments this letter represents important recognition of Inquest’s significant concerns about the treatment of bereaved families…These include the inequality of access to justice, in particular funding, delays in the investigation and inquest process, and the repeated failure to hold the police to account for criminality or wrongdoing.”
Most importantly, it now appears that the problems with access to justice in deaths in custody cases are being acknowledged, and there seems to be some intent from Theresa May and the Home Office to take positive action to assist families who are still waiting for answers.