News Newsletter April 2020 newsletter In this edition: COVID-19 Prisons Legal aid Mental health and learning disabilities Families’ campaigns for justice INQUEST team update INQUEST are continuing to run our casework service remotely.Investigations and inquests are being subject to serious disruption and delay. Families who have questions or concerns about what this means for them should speak to their lawyer or caseworker. CONTACT US Covid-19 INQUEST continues to remind the government, investigation, inspection and monitoring bodies and institutions of their human rights obligations to people in detention. During this unprecedented public health crisis, it is essential that the state upholds its domestic and international obligations to protect the life of detainees, to prevent torture and degrading and inhumane treatment and ensure an effective and independent investigation where someone dies.Read more in our briefing - Covid-19: Protecting the lives of people in places of custody and detention. Covid-19 in prison and detention settings INQUEST, like many others, are dismayed at the lack of progress in releasing people from prison as we see coronavirus continuing to spread and infect prisoners and staff, with more than half of prisons in England and Wales reporting cases. Latest figures from the Ministry of Justice indicate that 18 prisoners in England and Wales have died who tested positive for Covid-19, and six prison staff. According to INQUEST’s casework and monitoring there have also been eight self-inflicted deaths since prisons were put under immediate lockdown on 24 March. There are real concerns about the impact of increased isolation, restrictive regimes and the inhumanity of spending over 23 hours a day in cells on peoples mental and physical health. There is also the risk of ill-treatment in closed institutions with very limited external scrutiny in places of detention. INQUEST has raised our key concerns with parliamentarians over the past few weeks to inform inquiries and debates. At Justice Questions in the House of Commons, David Lammy MP raised concerns about prisoners human rights and the impact of restrictive regimes. Lord Harris of Haringey and Lord Ramsbotham asked pertinent questions in the House of Lords about keeping families informed and the need for regular published figures on Covid-19 related deaths in prison. Such figures are currently being provided on an ad hoc basis. Our joint letter with Women in Prison, calling on the government to drastically reduce the prison population to save lives during this unprecedented health crisis, received over 400 signatories. Over 220 people joined a Twitter Storm – asking the government to take urgent action and #Release2SaveLives, which reached over 117k people on the platform. Covid-19 in mental health and learning disability settings There is a shocking vacuum of information on the impact of the virus in mental health and learning disability settings. There has been no data on the rates of infection of staff and patients, and whether deaths have occurred. At a time of restrictions to family visits and no external scrutiny, such transparency is vital to ensuring the human rights of people are being upheld. The impact of the virus on the use of seclusion, restraint, medication and access to therapeutic services must be closely monitored. INQUEST were concerned to learn that the Care Quality Commission only started asking whether people had died from Covid-19 on 9 April, two and a half weeks after the UK-wide lockdown. As a result of pressure from campaigners including INQUEST, NHS England have now agreed to publish information on deaths of those with learning disabilities and autism, having previously stated this would not be published until the the annual LeDer report. Covid-19 and the protection of frontline workers There has been considerable disquiet about recent guidance from the Chief Coroner, saying that inquests would not be a satisfactory means of deciding whether adequate policies and arrangements were in place for provision of PPE to healthcare workers. Members of the INQUEST Lawyers Group are considering the guidance and a response to it. Bereaved families have legitimate questions about whether the deaths of their relatives could have been prevented had, for example, sufficient/adequate PPE been available and/or effective ‘test, isolate and trace’ been in place. Covid-19 inquests will often need to comply with Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The guidance fails to adequately address what coroners need to bear in mind when setting the scope of such inquests. INQUEST Director Deborah Coles told the Guardian: “In the absence of a public inquiry inquests will play a vital role in identifying systemic failings in the protection of frontline workers. This scrutiny is key to learning and holding people to account in order to prevent future deaths.” Prison New government figures were released showing record levels of self-harm and high numbers of deaths of people in prison. Deborah Coles was quoted in the Guardian “We fear the worst is yet to come as the impact of the virus is felt throughout the prison estate”. A report by the Committee for the Prevention of Torture found damning evidence that prisoners were subject to unjustified violence inflicted by staff. Deborah Coles responded, "That such systemic staff violence appears not to have been picked up by inspection and monitoring bodies raises serious concerns. The Government’s indifferent and complacent response to abusive practices within prisons is telling. These disturbing findings require urgent parliamentary scrutiny." Legal aid Following months of representations by INQUEST and INQUEST Lawyers Group Members, new regulations have been introduced to allow for the backdating of the legal help waiver where granted. Previously the grant was effective from the date of the decision by the Legal Aid Agency (LAA). In a recent meeting with INQUEST and ILG members, the LAA confirmed it will use its discretion to backdate funding to the date the Legal Help waiver forms are signed. This will have a significant impact for families and lawyers by ensuring early stage work is funded. The LAA continue to update the online Exceptional Case Funding Provider Pack to reflect these changes. This is welcomed progress whilst we continue to campaign for fairer automatic, non means tested public funding for bereaved families. Police INQUEST is among other organisations that have withdrawn from the National Police Chiefs’ Council’s Taser advisory group over the escalating roll out of tasers and their disproportionate use. A prevention of future deaths report published following the death of Marc Cole has called on the Home Office and the College of Policing to institute “a wholesale review of the effects of multiple Taser activations”. Lisa, sister of Marc told the Guardian "he died a completely unnecessary and preventable death because officers did not have adequate training around the effects of Taser on vulnerable people. It seems our concerns are falling on deaf ears and not being taken seriously.” Mental health and learning disabilities Sally had learning disabilities and died in the care home in which she lived after suffering a burst bowel. After fighting for an inquest, it is essential that the family's lawyers are there to ask the right questions. Please read and donate to the family’s CrowdJustice funder if you are able to. Errol Graham was found dead at his home by bailiffs sent to evict him in June 2018, eight months after his benefits were stopped because of his failure to attend a fitness for work assessment. His daughter in law, Alison, spoke to the Guardian providing shocking detail of his despair and declining mental ill health. Alison said she was struck by the aggression of the Department for Work and Pensions’ legal team at Errol's inquest, concluding they were "only concerned with getting the DWP off the hook”. INQUEST are supporting calls for an independent inquiry to into benefit related deaths to ensure the actions and inactions of the state face robust scrutiny, and for future deaths to be prevented. Families campaigns for justice Lee Lawrence, son of Cherry Groce who was shot and paralysed by police and a member of our Family Reference Group, describes powerfully the loss of trust, confusion and imbalances of power families face in fights for justice. He invites us to Re-imagine Justice and open space for reconciliation and peace in this powerful TedX Talk. Lions, Liars, Donkeys and Penguins: The Killing of Alison, is a story of the abuse of power and hiding of wrongdoing in public services, written Tom Bell and Sarah Daniel to bring to light the life and death of their sister, Alison St James, and their own struggle for accountability. You can purchase it online here. INQUEST team news Our Head of Policy, Rebecca Roberts, left INQUST this month. Rebecca has made a tremendous contribution to INQUEST over the past two and a half years. She has been at the forefront of our policy and research work around the deaths of people in prison and following release. She also lead on our campaign for Legal Aid for Inquests. We thank her for her dedication and wish her all the best in future. Have you bought your National Memorial Fund badge yet? This fund will make a real difference for families and their campaign groups that need financial support during the often long and drawn out struggles for justice that can last for decades. Purchase your badge online here.