Letter: Investigation of deaths in custody

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The Independent Online
Sir: At a time when the two main political parties vie with each other over dealing with young offenders it was with sadness and anger that we learnt about the death of the 15-year-old who was found unconscious in Hartlepool police station on 1 April (report, 3 April).

This death raises profound questions about the care afforded juveniles in police stations and about the adequacy of current guidelines within the Police and Criminal Evidence Act Codes of Practice and of their implementation. It is Inquest's experience in over 16 years of monitoring deaths in police custody and working with bereaved families that guidelines are frequently insufficiently adhered to and even where they are, do not provide a proper framework in which the police should exercise the duty of care they owe to those in their custody.

We have no confidence in a mechanism of investigation which allows the Cleveland police to investigate a death in Cleveland police custody. These investigations are secret and open to accusations of bias. The content is never made public or available to the bereaved family and yet it forms the basis on which the Police Complaints Authority decide whether disciplinary charges are to be brought and whether procedural changes should be recommended and it strongly influences the shape of the inquest. The inquest is the only public forum for examining such deaths with its many procedural problems - notably the lack of legal aid for representation for the bereaved, the lack of prior disclosure of any documentation and its narrow remit.

A new government must act to ensure that bereaved families are given access to all the information about their loved one's death before the inquest and institute a public inquiry into the whole investigative and legal process which follows deaths in custody to ensure that families can discover the truth about how their loved one died and the police are fully accountable to the public they supposedly serve.

DEBORAH COLES

HELEN SHAW

Co-Directors

Inquest

London N4

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