20 July 2021

"My son had his whole life ahead and could have had a bright future but opportunities to help him were missed."

- Charnjit Kainth, the father of Jaskiran Kainth

Court cells typically receive less public attention than other places of detention, such as prisons and police custody, yet every year thousands of people pass through them as they move through the criminal justice system. The death of 18 year old Jaskiran Kainth in Leicester Magistrates Court in April 2019 highlighted significant issues in these spaces, which are primarily privately run.

Jaskiran Kainth photoJaskiran Kainth

Jaskiran was found unresponsive having ligatured in a cell at Leicester Magistrates Court. He was taken to hospital but died a few days later on 3 May 2019. An inquest in June 2021 concluded that his death was by misadventure, meaning he did not intend to take his own life.

The inquest made significant criticisms of agencies involved, including the private company GeoAmey who run custody services at that court and many others. Critical findings included that inadequacies in the recording and sharing of information on Jaskiran’s mental ill health contributed to his death. Some custody staff told the inquest jury they had not received training on mental health, self-harm or suicide for 20 years.

See the media release on the inquest into Jaskiran's death for more information.

Deaths in court custody

Compared to longer term detention settings, the number of deaths in court cells is relatively small, but each death raises serious concerns both around court cell themselves and with inter-agency working.

While data is not routinely published, INQUEST is aware of six deaths of people in court cells from 2006 to 2020. In 2019-20 the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) investigated two cases of deaths in court custody. However, these smaller numbers must not lead to less oversight and scrutiny, and repeated failures must be prevented to protect lives.

Court custody units are managed by HM Courts and Tribunal Services (HMCTS) yet rely on contracted providers such as GeoAmey and Serco to carry out vital services.

Inspectors report that conditions have improved since HMI Prisons found “almost no one at local or national level who accepted overall accountability” for the management of court cells in 2015. However, the Lay Observers – volunteers who independently monitor court custody units – reported last year on a lack of effective communication between agencies responsible for the care of individuals in court custody.

Other investigations into deaths have also shed light on the treatment and conditions in court cells. 

Take the shocking case of Rafal Sochacki who died at Westminster Magistrates’ Court on 21 June 2017. He suffered a heat stroke after being detained in a court cell with “faulty” air-conditioning on one of the hottest days of 2017.

A PPO investigation highlighted concerns about the recording of information on Rafal, and found staff took no action to check on his welfare. An inquest in 2019 concluded that excessive cell heat caused heart stress, with experts saying this heat would have been a significant factor in his death.

The death of Tharmalingham Sivaraj uncovered similar issues. Sivaraj died in April 2015 at Thames Magistrates' Court. He was suffering from alcohol withdrawal and died of an alcohol related seizure and chronic traumatic head injury.

The inquest into his death stated that there had been a continuous lack of communication by court custody staff leading up to Sivaraj’s death and found that warning signs were missed. Sivaraj, who suffered from seizures, should have been checked every five minutes by Serco custody staff. In the hour leading up to his fatal collapse he was only checked once. The coroner’s report found that Serco staff falsely recorded that cell checks occurred on schedule.

The facts in these cases are unique but together they highlight repeated failures to identify and address risks in court custody. Precise information recording and sharing is a simple yet critical task to ensure individuals in court custody, many of whom are vulnerable, are kept safe. The need for urgent improvements, as evidenced by inquests, inspections and investigations, is clear.