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European Court of Human Rights – family to challenge UK government failure to prosecute police officers: background briefing on the broader context of the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes

4 June 2015

09.15  Wednesday 10 June 2015
before the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights, Strasbourg

"This case in the European Court of Human Rights shines a spotlight on the issue of police accountability and the inequality and injustice that prevails.

A democratic society needs a criminal justice system that ensures scrutiny and accountability of the police and ensures that prosecutions for human rights violations are brought in appropriate cases. Public confidence in the police is fundamental to democratic policing and must not be undermined by any suggestion that the rule of law does not apply equally to all citizens including those in uniform.”

Deborah Coles, Co-Director, INQUEST who will be attending the hearing in Strasbourg alongisde the family and their lawyers.

The failure to bring any criminal prosecutions against police officers responsible for the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes, by Metropolitan police officers on 22 July 2005 raises significant questions about how the state and its agents are held to account for killing its citizens.

Prosecutions are extremely rare after a death in custody, even where an inquest jury has returned a finding of unlawful killing. This has been and remains one of the most contentious issues in relation to the approach of the criminal justice system to deaths in all forms of custody.

INQUEST has longstanding concerns about the way in which the criminal justice system deals with deaths in and following police contact and the need to improve the effectiveness and transparency of the investigation processes and the mechanisms for holding the police to account.

In our experience, the approach of the investigation conducted by the Independent Police Complaints Commission and the Crown Prosecution Service is from the outset, to treat the death as anything other than a potential homicide, and that is the first issue with which bereaved families have to struggle.  What we see in the handling of these cases is a familiar malaise: an institutionalised unwillingness and reluctance to approach these deaths as potential homicides which infects the entire process, from the investigation conducted by the IPCC through to the deliberations of the CPS on the outcome of the investigation.  From the outside, it appears that this malaise serves only to encourage a culture of impunity, to send a clear message to police officers: that deaths can occur as a result of their acts or omissions and they will not be called to account. The perception is created that the police are ‘above the law’.

INQUEST has worked on a significant number of cases following the use of lethal force, from fatal shootings to deaths following the use of dangerous or excessive and unlawful restraint, where police officers have not been subjected to criminal or disciplinary charges. A disproportionate number of people from black and minority ethnic communities have died following the use of lethal force.

There has never been a successful prosecution for manslaughter or murder in any case in the UK, even where an inquest jury has returned a finding of ‘unlawful killing’. Since 1990 there have been 995 deaths in police custody or following police contact and 55 fatal shootings by police officers. Whilst the number of deaths involving the use of force by the police is a small proportion of the total number of deaths in custody, these deaths have often been the most controversial.

Since 1990, there have been 9 unlawful killing verdicts/findings returned by juries at inquests into deaths involving the police and 1 unlawful killing finding recorded by a public inquiry, none of which has yet resulted in a successful prosecution.

There are a significant number of other cases which have not resulted in unlawful killing findings or prosecutions, but which nevertheless raise serious and significant concerns about human rights violations and potential criminal conduct on the part of police officers.

The fact that there are rarely prosecutions either for individual acts or systemic organisational failures following the use of lethal force has caused considerable public disquiet and anger and contributed to a lack of trust and confidence in the criminal justice system. At its core are concerns that the rule of law does not apply to the police for abuses of power in the same way as it does to an ordinary citizen and that they are able to avoid scrutiny and accountability. This has further undermined legitimacy of the police with the inevitable conclusion that they are not accountable to the rule of law.

This highlights a crisis in confidence in the ability of the UK criminal justice system to hold police officers accountable.  The impunity of the police undermines public confidence and trust and frustrates the prevention of abuses of power, ill treatment and misconduct. This is an issue that has also been the subject of repeated parliamentary scrutiny and inquiry and critical comment at a national and international level. 

As the European Committee On the Prevention of Torture have reported:

‘The existence of effective mechanisms to tackle police misconduct is an important safeguard against ill-treatment of persons deprived of their liberty. In those cases where evidence of wrongdoing emerges, the imposition of appropriate disciplinary and/or criminal penalties can have a powerful dissuasive effect on police officers who might otherwise be minded to engage in ill-treatment.’

A democratic society needs a criminal justice system that ensures scrutiny and accountability of the police and ensures that prosecutions are brought in appropriate cases. Public confidence in the police is fundamental to democratic policing and must not be undermined by any suggestion that the rule of law does not apply equally to all citizens including those in uniform.

You can contact the Justice 4 Jean Family Campaign on 07931337890 or 07709656251. Interviews with the family can be arranged at request.

Birnberg Peirce solicitors' legal briefing is available here.

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