Seasons greetings from INQUEST

20 December 2013

20 December 2013

As the final edition for this year of the INQUEST e-newsletter we write with season’s greetings and to thank you for all your support throughout 2013.

It has been another challenging year. Demand for our advice and casework service has remained extremely high throughout 2013.  Our casework team opened 385 new cases this year, of which 152 were deaths in custody requiring our detailed specialist casework service, including advice to lawyers, investigators, families, and input to policy work. We supported over 50 families through inquests. At the end of the year we published a short report of a survey conducted with families about our service which we are pleased to report contains overwhelmingly positive feedback. It is available on our website here.

Much of our casework remains largely out of the public eye, for example, tragic, preventable deaths in prison both self-inflicted and otherwise, deaths of psychiatric patients where mental health provision has been woefully lacking.  Some very strong inquest conclusions have been returned this year, along with coroner’s reports in relation to many of these deaths and we will continue to work to ensure this learning is acted upon.

Some cases will always attract greater public attention not least those following use of force by the state. We ended last year with the conclusion of evidence in the inquiry into the police shooting of Azelle Rodney in 2005. Six months later, at the beginning of July the inquiry report was published and it was ruled that the killing was unlawful.

And then in September, the inquest into the police shooting of another black man, Mark Duggan, began, and the jury is currently still deliberating with a conclusion expected in January. INQUEST’s casework has shown that a disproportionate number of following contact with the police that involve the use of force or serious neglect are of people from black and minority ethnic (BAME) communities. INQUEST is concerned that institutional racism has been a contributory factor and will continue to highlight this issue in 2014.

Another area where disproportionate numbers of people die following use of force are those with mental health problems.  In November we were shocked to learn of two deaths within ten days following police restraint of people experiencing mental health difficulties, Leon Briggs and Terry Smith.  We are giving advice and support to both families and working with their legal teams. This is a key area of work for us and we have been campaigning strongly for a national strategy on mental health and policing following the deaths of several others in similar circumstances: Thomas Orchard, James Herbert, Sean Rigg and Seni Lewis to name just a few.

We have also spent much of the year working intensively to influence the Independent Police Complaints Commission’s review of its investigations into deaths following police contact. Our co-director Deborah Coles is on the reference group and have arranged for families to feed directly into the review. The final report has yet to be published, but it is telling that both recent restraint cases are being treated as criminal investigations, with police officers being interviewed under caution. It is also a tribute to the families of Seni Lewis, James Herbert, and Sean Rigg, as well as the work of their lawyers and INQUEST, that the IPCC has now begun to reinvestigate both these cases, in recognition of the poor quality of their original investigations.

This year also saw inquests into the deaths of four women in prison: Melanie Beswick, Lucy Wood, Sarah Higgins and Helen Waight. As well as revealing the tragic circumstances of their individual deaths, evidence at each inquest called into serious question why they were ever imprisoned in the first place. These concerns were reflected in our June report ‘Preventing the deaths of women in prison: the need for an alternative approach’. This argued that prison is no place for women and the entire system needs to be dismantled and replaced with community-based alternatives. There were six deaths of women in prison in 2013, a 50% increase on 2012.

Our casework continues to underpin our policy and influencing work, and we have worked hard throughout 2013 to ensure the issues raised by deaths are heard at the highest possible level. We have submitted responses to five separate parliamentary inquiries, produced several briefings for MPs, spoke at a number of conferences, parliamentary meetings and roundtables, met with ministers and officials, and we continue to be represented on the cross departmental Ministerial Board on Deaths in Custody and Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody.  We have organised and facilitated training courses for a variety of stakeholders.  As part of this we try to ensure that wherever possible, bereaved families are given the opportunity to speak out alongside us, and their experiences and that of their relative provides the basis for all our influencing and external work. We have maintained a high media profile in 2013, and likewise have endeavoured to ensure that families’ voices are heard in the media as much as possible.

We have continued our campaigning against the proposals to limit legal aid, an issue which will take centre stage in the 2014 political calendar. We continue to call for an urgent, independent review of deaths of children and young people in the criminal justice system following our 2012 report, ‘Fatally Flawed’. The deaths of 14 young people aged 24 and under this year, including four in November, make this particularly urgent.  Look out for an hour long documentary on the deaths of children and young people we have been working on, due to be broadcast in April 2014. And we remain committed to our policy and parliamentary work on challenging the absence of an independent investigatory body to investigate deaths in mental health settings. We will launch a major report on this issue early in the new year.

A key milestone was reached in the summer when the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 was finally implemented, bringing about new changes to the way inquests are conducted. This was the culmination of years of INQUEST’s work on coronial reform and we are working to ensure that all change is for the better, meeting regularly with the Chief Coroner to ensure our own experiences and those of the specialist INQUEST Lawyers Group are fed back to him, and to press for better learning and accountability.

And we are delighted to have launched our new website, which we hope you are finding clearer, easier to read and more user-friendly.

In December, we said goodbye to our long-standing caseworker Scarlet Granville, who moved on after seven and a half years with INQUEST. We wish her all the very best for the future.

We end this with a few words from our Chair, Daniel Machover:

“INQUEST has had some extraordinary achievements in 2013. With a tiny staff team of 10, the majority part time, it punches far above its weight and consistently draws praise from families, lawyers, parliamentarians and other organisations for the excellent work that it does. I am proud to be INQUEST Chair and want to say on behalf of the whole Board of Trustees that we are always impressed at what the organisation is able to achieve with very meagre resources.

“But times are getting tougher - INQUEST is surviving on a fairly small number of grants and donations from the public, and in these challenging times it is a real struggle to make ends meet while maintaining the service to families that they so need and value. Less money means reduced staff levels and a reduced service, when if anything the team and the service provided needs to expand.

“This is where you come in. Please consider making a regular gift to support INQUEST’s work of whatever you can afford, which will contribute to the long term sustainability of the organisation. I cannot stress enough how much every penny is needed and every contribution, no matter how much, makes a crucial difference.”

To donate, please click here

From all of us, very best wishes for a peaceful and positive new year.

Deborah Coles, Helen Shaw and the team at INQUEST

This letter is also available for download

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