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Families of people who die in police custody want the truth

TRAGEDY: Left, Sean Rigg, who died in police custody in 2008, and Kevin Clarke, who died in March 2018 after being restrained

RELATIVES OF people who die in police, prison or mental health custody are challenging a government decision to deny them legal aid.

Despite submissions from over 70 legal firms and human rights organisations, the Ministry of Justice decided against granting legal aid for families to attend inquests.

Currently, state organisations involved in a death have unlimited access to the best legal teams and experts paid for out of public funds.

In contrast, grieving families do not. Because of the expense many have been force to crowdfund, represent themselves or receive no legal help at all.

Campaigners say that in cases where a black person has died in state custody, the lack of adequate legal representation means it is harder to establish what happened. As a result, those responsible for a death aer rarely held to account or punished leading to a sense that justice has been denied.

PUNISHED

Now the families of Sean Rigg and Kevin clarke who died after being restrained by police officers are among those backing a new campaign to change the government’s decision.

Deborah Coles of inquest which launched the campaign in parliament this week said: “INQUEST and the families we work with refuse to be silenced. We call on the government to act now and urgently introduce fair public funding for legal representation at inquests, to end to this unequal playing field.

The campaign is pushing for the introduction of automatic non-means-tested legal aid funding. Coles continued: “The power imbalance between bereaved families and the state is the most significant injustice of the coronial process. Removing the barriers to accessing legal representation will not only create a fairer and more just inquest system, it will protect lives.

“Every review and public inquiry that has considered these issues over the past 20 years has recommended that this injustice must be addressed. Yet the Ministry of Justice has disregarded the evidence and ignored the voices of bereaved families.”

The 2017 deaths and serious incidents in police custody report by Dame Elish Angiolini, QC, and Bishop James Jones’s review on the Hillsborough disaster both recommended an end to means-testing, the basis on which legal aid is given to bereaved families involved in state custody deaths at the moment. As a result, the Ministry of Justice opened a review of legal aid but decided against granting of automatic non-means-tested legal aid funding for bereaved families.

Marcia Rigg, sister of Sean Rigg, said she was giving her full backing to the campaign.
Sean was a 40-year-old black British musician who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. He died on August 21, 2008, while in police custody, following prolonged restraint by multiple police officers.

The inquest overturned a failed investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) and evidence exposed during the hearing resulted in the first ever perjury prosecution of a serving police officer following a death in police custody.
The IPCC has since been replaced by the Independent Office for Police Conduct.

ALLEGATIONS

Damning inquest conclusions also initiated misconduct hearings against officers regarding allegations that they lied about the circumstances and their role in the lead-up to Sean’s death.

The case highlighted the impact legal representation can have on families’ access to justice. Sean’s family’s efforts (supported by an expert legal team) prompted the IPCC to independently review its own investigation processes and was one of the key cases that fed into the seminal Angiolini review of police-related deaths.

But despite this, the family struggled to access legal aid, and were overwhelmed by the funding process. They had only modest income and capital, yet were required to make a contribution of £21,000. This came down to £5,000 after considerable legal argument from Marcia Rigg’s legal team.

The state, on the other hand, was represented by multiple and extensive legal teams at full public expense. Speaking about this issue recently, she said: “I have faced an endlessly lengthy and unbalanced justice system.

ACCOUNTABLE

“And despite a string of reviews, inquiries, set of recommendations calling for changes to police conduct, a damning inquest jury verdict, and a mass media campaign, no officer or institution has been held accountable for Sean’s death. This has led me and many others to feel that there is no real justice or penalty for state wrongdoing.

“This destroys public trust and fuels resentment among black communities who feel targeted and harshly treated. My story is just one of many. Our family has experienced unimaginable trauma, disappointment and exhaustion.”

Rigg continued: “To top things off, when we attempted to get legal representation for the inquest hearing, we faced an intrusive legal aid means- testing process, which resulted in our family being asked to contribute £21,000. We were being asked to pay this sum to find out how Sean died.

“I hugely benefited from legal representation during the inquest as I came up against a team of five state lawyers. These included lawyers representing the police, ambulance and other health services. Rather than helping me understand the reason Sean died, I felt that they were more interested in protecting their interests.

“The jury found, amongst other grave issues, that the ‘prone’ restraint applied by officers for up to eight minutes was excessive and unreasonable and that the actions or inactions of both the mental health trust and arresting officers on the night contributed to Sean’s death. The inquest was a key high point in my family’s battle for justice.”

The event in parliament, on February 26, which was chaired by the Rt Rev James Jones, former Bishop of Liverpool, saw the launch of a petition to support the campaign.

Rev Jones said: “Bereaved families are entitled to have the legal help they need to discover the truth of what happened to their loved ones. Finding themselves without that help and outgunned by lawyers representing public bodies is wholly unacceptable. It is an offence to natural justice and a solution must now be found.”

In a statement, the Ministry of Justice said: “Our review confirmed that the inquest process should remain focused on fact-finding and establishing the truth, and showed that for the vast majority of inquests, legal representation is not necessary.

“But we do want to ensure that people are supported through the inquest process and are making a number of changes to the system to make it more accessible and supportive.”

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