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Deaths in custody


When a person dies in custody, it is a very difficult and stressful time for friends and relatives. A number of people, who will be complete strangers, will suddenly become involved and may ask questions about the circumstances leading to the death.

You will also have questions not only about the death, but also about the procedures that will then take place and/or the process that will take place. At such a time, it is not easy to remember everything that is said. This booklet aims to provide some important information that you can refer to in trying to understand what happens next.

In 2002, the Attorney General started a review to look at the practices of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and how it handled cases it received that involved a death in custody. (The phrase "death in custody"is explained in more detail a little further on.)

During the consultation with the public, it became clear that a straightforward document that covered all the steps that might take place could be of great benefit to family members who would otherwise be unfamiliar with the processes. [Note: The full text of the Attorney's Review, which was published in July 2003, can be found at The Attorney General directed that a leaflet should be produced that would explain to families where the Crown Prosecution Service fitted into the process and what they could expect from the CPS.

This booklet is intended to provide information specifically to those whose loved one has died when in the custody of the state, or following contact with police.

It is the responsibility of the state to seek to protect its citizens from harm. Therefore if a person has died in custody, it is important that all the circumstances of the death are examined.

It is essential that there is an independent and thorough investigation that is capable of leading to the identification and punishment of any person who may have been criminally responsible for the death.

The CPS has an important role in that investigation and, as a result of the Attorney's Review, we have changed some of our work practices to ensure that families can see that we are carrying out our responsibilities.

This booklet is produced by the CPS and sets out our role. It will also tell you about the roles and responsibilities of those who investigate these cases. In addition it will also tell you about the rights of those who may be suspected of causing the death.

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What is a death in custody?

The CPS procedures are not limited to deaths that take place in a police station or prison, but include the death of a person following contact between the police where there may be a link between the contact and the death.

Fatal shootings involving police, where a police officer has fired the fatal shot, are also included in these special procedures. But deaths that arise from road traffic incidents are not.

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The coroner

When a person dies in custody, a number of people have specific tasks to carry out. A coroner is a doctor or lawyer specially appointed to conduct inquests into violent or unnatural deaths, sudden deaths where the cause is unknown and deaths in prison.

In recent years, coroners have also conducted inquests into deaths that have occurred in police stations. When a person dies in custody, the coroner will be informed and will appoint a pathologist to examine the body to try and determine the cause of death. This examination is known as a post mortem or autopsy. The pathologist will provide a report to the coroner and, if there is a suspicion that a crime has been committed, also to the investigators.

In the criminal justice system, because it is so important to try and be sure of the cause of death, it may be necessary for more than one pathologist to carry out a post mortem. For instance, if a person is suspected of being responsible for causing the death, they must be allowed the opportunity to obtain their own evidence.

The family are also entitled to have a post mortem carried out, if they so wish.

Unfortunately this means that families often have a longer wait before the funeral can take place. This is particularly difficult for families whose religion or culture usually involves bodies being quickly buried or cremated or returned to an overseas home.

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The investigators

If the death has taken place in a police station or following contact with police, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) will oversee the investigation. The IPCC is an agency, which is independent of the police and the CPS. It can both choose to manage or supervise the police investigation into a case and independently investigate the most serious cases.

One of its main tasks is to investigate, manage or supervise allegations of criminal conduct by police officers. It replaced the Police Complaints Authority on 1 April 2004. If the death has taken place in prison, then any investigation into a possible criminal offence is carried out by the police.

Whether it is the IPCC or the police who investigate, if it is believed that there is evidence that a crime may have been committed, they must pass the papers to the CPS.

We have close working relationships with the IPCC and the police. In difficult cases we are now brought in at an early stage to advise them on legal matters and possible areas to investigate. We encourage close involvement with us at the start of their investigations.

The IPCC has also produced a leaflet, entitled "Step by Step, Advice for Friends and Family", which provides information on the organisation and how its investigations are conducted.

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When making prosecution decisions, although we work closely with other agencies in the criminal justice system to make everything as efficient as possible, we are independent of them.

When advised of a death in custody, the CPS will appoint one of a small number of specially selected prosecutors from within the Special Crime Division, who have been trained to handle these sensitive cases.

It will be the task of that lawyer to advise the investigators and in due course to consider all the evidence to decide if there is sufficient evidence to prosecute.

A copy of the leaflet "The Decision To Prosecute", which explains how prosecution decisions are reached, will be given to you, together with this booklet.

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The prosecutor

These prosecutors work in the Special Crime Division, which is based at two sites, one in London and the other in York.

When the prosecutor has been given your details they will either write to you or phone to arrange a meeting. They will provide you with their details including their direct phone number. We will ensure that the prosecutor has had no previous dealings with any officer who may be a suspect in the case.

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Meetings with families

One of the CPS lawyer's responsibilities will be to meet the family as soon as practicable and to keep in contact as the investigation proceeds. Experience has shown that these investigations can be very lengthy and this long wait for a decision can be particularly stressful to all concerned.

The prosecutor will keep you informed of the progress of the investigation and will normally offer a further meeting before a final decision is reached on whether or not there should be a prosecution.

The purpose of these meetings is to develop a link between you and the prosecutor and to reassure you that the prosecutor will assess the evidence fairly.

You may have additional information you wish to provide or particular concerns that you want the prosecutor to take into account when reaching a decision.

The prosecutor will be able to outline the issues in the case, the legal elements that have to be proved and how the Code for Crown Prosecutors applies. This is a public document that sets out the basic principles of how the CPS reaches decisions on cases.

As no decision will have been reached at this stage, and as you may be a witness, the prosecutor may not be able to discuss the case with you in detail.

If the prosecutor decides that there should be a prosecution, then you will be informed and kept up to date as the case progresses.

If the prosecutor decides against a prosecution, the prosecutor will write to you explaining the decision and you will be offered a further meeting where the decision will be explained in more detail.

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The suspect

Where a person is suspected of committing a crime, they have certain rights and these rights apply equally to police or prison officers where a person has died in custody.

We have already mentioned their right to have a further post mortem as this may show that the suspect had not caused or contributed to the death.

We understand that the family will want to know as much as possible of the circumstances in which their loved one died. They will be upset where a person who may be able to help decides not to explain about what took place. In our justice system, nobody can be forced to answer questions.

Any refusal to answer questions can only be used against them in very limited circumstances and even then only if there is already sufficient other evidence against them.

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After the CPS decision

If the prosecutor decides that the suspect should be charged, the defendant will appear in court. We will tell you the dates of the hearings and where they are to take place and you will be informed of the bail decision. If there are any alterations to the charge, or if the prosecutor is considering accepting a plea of guilty to a lesser charge, you will be advised.

If the prosecutor decides that the suspect should not be charged, you will receive a written explanation of the reasons and will be offered a meeting so the prosecutor can explain those reasons to you. You will be also be offered advice on the Crown Prosecution Service's complaints' procedure, and other legal remedies that may be available to you.

Families also have the right to bring a private prosecution, and their legal advisors will be able to provide them with the necessary information. The Crown Prosecution Service has also produced a leaflet on bringing a private prosecution which can be provided on request.

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The inquest

If the prosecutor has decided not to charge the suspect, the coroner will be informed and will then arrange a date for an inquest. Usually, from the family's point of view, the key question at the inquest is: how did the person die?

To assist families prepare for the inquest, there is now a system for the investigators to supply the family with much of the evidence produced in the investigation. Although witnesses are called and may be asked questions, the inquest is not a trial and nobody can be found guilty.

The prosecutor does not have a formal role at an inquest, but may be present during the hearing to decide whether any new and relevant evidence has been given.

Once the inquest is finished, the prosecutor will consider all the evidence that is now available, including evidence given at the inquest.

If there is now sufficient evidence to charge a person or if further enquiries are needed, you will be informed. If the prosecutor decides that there is still insufficient evidence and that there are no further enquiries that can reasonably be undertaken, the prosecutor will write to you advising you of the decision and the reasons for it. The prosecutor will invite you to a further meeting where that decision can be explained to you in more detail.

Where there is a possibility of a charge of homicide, the coroner will open and adjourn the inquest.

If the CPS charges a defendant with a homicide offence the inquest cannot take place until after the trial. If the CPS decides to prosecute for a charge other than homicide, the inquest may proceed before the trial, at the discretion of the coroner.

If the CPS concludes that there is insufficient evidence to prosecute, it will consider all the evidence again at the conclusion of the inquest, and this may result in a decision to prosecute.

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If a person is charged with a criminal offence, they may be tried either in a magistrates' court or in a Crown Court, depending on the charge and the plea. The prosecutor will explain to you what will take place and will answer any questions you may have.

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We hope that this booklet will help to reassure you about what happens following a death in custody. If you have any queries regarding the investigation, please contact the CPS prosecutor who is handling the case.

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Relevant addresses and websites

For information about the Crown Prosecution Service:
CPS Special Crime Division:
Rose Court, 2 Southwark Bridge, London, SE1 9HS
020 3357 0000
United House, Piccadilly, York YO1 9PQ
01904 545400

For information about the Attorney General's Review of the role of the Crown Prosecution Service in cases arising from a death in custody:
The Office of the Attorney General
20 Victoria Street, London SW1H 0NF
020 7271 2460

For information about how investigations are conducted:
90 High Holborn London WC1V 6BH
08453 002002

For information on independent, confidential and free legal advice and support:
89-93 Fonthill Road London N4 3JH
020 7263 1111

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