This is an area where prior to the implementation of the Human Rights Act 1998, most of the work I did was pro bono as there was no legal aid. Fortunately today there is modest public funding although for families only. Many committed lawyers prior to this would work long hours and on long cases for free, simply because it was unfair that a family should have to face usually a small army of lawyers representing various state agents on their own without any legal assistance. This is simply wrong in my opinion. In such deaths there should be some equality of arms. Where the State is accused or implicated in the death of one of its own, then it should be subject to careful scrutiny.

This summer I acted in the case of Sean Rigg, which illustrates this point perfectly. Sean died at Brixton police station on 21 August 2008 after being restrained by officers. Sadly Sean Rigg’s story is not an uncommon one. The facts of this case were controversial, as is common with many deaths in custody.

The Background
A relatively young, fit and healthy man at the time of his death at the age of 40, Sean was a talented musician and songwriter, who suffered from a mental illness - schizophrenia. Sean’s illness was controlled with medication. According to his treating doctors and family, when well and on medication no-one would know Sean suffered from a mental illness. But when he stopped his medication he would relapse relatively quickly. As Sean had little or no insight into his condition, stopping his medication was disastrous because this would lead to a downward spiral of mental illness resulting in him being paranoid, mistrustful of his family and those responsible for his care, and at times potentially dangerous to others.

According to the police account, on the day he died, Sean had left the hostel in which he resided, having become clearly unwell following a period of time when he had stopped taking his medication. He had been arrested by four police officers in Clapham, having assaulted random members of the public during a psychotic episode. Sean was placed into a police van and taken to the station where he was brought out of the van and placed in the caged area of the entrance to the custody suite. He suddenly and unexpectedly became ill and collapsed.

The final moments of Sean’s life were captured on CCTV at the police station and from this footage there was clear evidence of Sean dying with no assistance being offered to him from the 4-5 officers standing around and over him. He was left lying on the cold concrete floor. He was naked from the torso up. Officers were crowded around him as if to prevent him being seen by the camera. When asked for an explanation as to why it was necessary for so many officers to be in the caged area, contradictory accounts were given. In the end it was difficult to understand what the good reason was. The Forensic Medical Examiner (police surgeon) who attended, was called to the caged area very late by the officers. He did not arrive until approximately 20 minutes after Sean had arrived at the police station. Although the doctor’s actions were clearly not causative of Sean’s death, he appeared to do little to assist Sean who, in the family’s view, was by then in a state of collapse. When asked why he appeared to be doing so little, he replied that the officers were conducting CPR and there was little more he could add to assist. On the CCTV the doctor was heard to be trying to agree an account of what had happened with the Custody Officer. This was of concern because it naturally gives the appearance of collusion, especially to the family. The FME has since retired from police station work and come off the medical registrar voluntarily for family reasons.

It was a mystery to Sean’s family that he would suddenly collapse in this way with no previous problems with his health apart from his mental illness. They were highly sceptical of the police account. There were few reliable witness accounts of the actions of the police when restraining Sean, and none of the events occurring during the journey to the police station nor after his arrival, other than those of the officers concerned.

Since the implementation of the Human Rights Act 1998, the European Convention on Human Rights has incorporated into our domestic law one of the most fundamental of all rights under the convention, namely the Right to Life under Article 2. As a result, where an individual has died in custody, families are guaranteed a full and far reaching inquest. As is common with this type of case, where someone dies in the custody of the state, there is usually very little evidence as to what actually happened, apart from the ‘official’ account which in these circumstances was that of police officers and the report following the investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC).

There is nearly always mistrust of the official account, and in my experience that suspicion is often with some justification. In the case of Sean Rigg, Sean had unexplained injuries to his face and elbows which would have been obvious according to the forensic evidence, yet there was no explanation for these injuries from the police officers.

The accounts of the officers did not make sense. Their descriptions of Sean’s actions in the police van and at the police station were inconsistent with one another and not borne out by the CCTV footage. I exposed many of the officers’ inconsistencies in highly charged exchanges between us when they gave their evidence; in particular I showed the custody officer to have lied in relation to the evidence he gave of what he did when Sean arrived at the police station.

The inquest
What became abundantly clear during the course of the inquest was that evidence which should have been seized and preserved was not. Officers who should have been interviewed shortly after the incident were not interviewed for up to 5 months later, when details of the incident were no longer fresh in their minds. Fortunately despite these basic errors in investigation this did not prevent the jury from being able to reach their verdicts. Nonetheless, one could see how prejudicial these errors could have been in other cases.

The inquest was originally listed for six weeks. However it took six weeks to dissect forensically the evidence of the officers and experts, examining the various calls made by concerned members of the public and the police operators’ responses and to analyse the timings of these and the computer records of these calls and the documentation created by the operators. Much of these were inadequate and demonstrated that the officers concerned were hiding the fact that they had ample opportunity to verify Sean’s details which would have alerted them to the fact that he was mentally ill. This in turn would have led them to apply the relevant policy and procedures in force when dealing with mentally ill individuals.

Towards the end of the seventh week (unfortunately overrunning is not uncommon as it is very difficult to gauge the length of inquests) the jury still hadn’t been sent out. The court was only available for another week and we had been told that there was no possibility of any further time after this as we had already significantly overrun the listing. Then disaster -  there was disagreement and argument about the court’s interpretation of the law which meant further delays to the jury being sent out. It was inevitable that there would need to be resolution of the legal issue on verdicts (with more argument on what the right verdicts should be for the jury). In the end this delayed the Coroner’s summing up until the Friday morning of the seventh week. At this point the Coroner’s officer indicated that two of the jurors could not sit the following week. The whole inquest was at risk. To make matters worse, the pressure increased because Sean Rigg’s family, my clients, indicated that under no circumstances did they want to lose this jury and go through the whole inquest process again.

It would have been a great loss to lose this jury, who had been particularly attentive during the previous seven weeks including sacrificing personal time and sitting very long days. There was no doubt that this jury was a model jury who were engaged and took their civic duties very seriously: they asked very pertinent questions and at times elicited very revealing answers from witnesses in a way that would have made many a skilled advocate at the Bar proud.

The family were justifiably upset. They had had a 4 year wait to have the circumstances of their brother and son’s death formally explored, and they found it very difficult to understand how it had come about that they were suddenly facing the real possibility of having to start again, perhaps in a year’s time, as this was the waiting time for listing. This was certainly one of the most gruelling experiences a family has to go through; listening to details of and actively participating in the inquiry into how their loved one died in police custody.

The verdict
Fortunately the matter with the jury availability was resolved when the two jurors decided to cancel or postpone their summer holidays. This was something over which none of us could have had any influence and demonstrated the commitment of those individuals.

In the end the jury retired the following week and eventually returned with a damning verdict rejecting the police account of Sean’s death, and finding that the length of the police restraint was much longer than that admitted to by the officers, and the position in which he was restrained was dangerous and deleterious to his well being. The jury found that unsuitable and unnecessary force had been used on Sean and one of the contributing factors to his death was partial positional asphyxia.

It did not go unnoticed that the police officers involved had previously been given a clean bill of health by the police watchdog, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), who found no wrong doing on the part of the officers.

What is unusual about the inquest into the death of Sean Rigg is that this investigation is now subject to a further IPCC review, following this highly critical verdict, and two of the officers concerned are expected to have to answer further questions regarding their involvement in their tragic case.

Representing and getting answers for families who have lost loved ones takes considerable emotional resilience and perseverance. At times I feel like I employ more of the skills of a counsellor than simply the skills of counsel, but I love what I do and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Leslie Thomas, Garden Court Chambers