Court clarifies engagement of Article 2 in relation to natural deaths in custody

A recent High Court decision clarifies when deaths from natural causes of persons in custody or state detention require an Article 2 compliant inquest to be held.

The need for an inquest

When a person dies in custody or otherwise in state detention, the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 requires that there must always be an inquest, even if that death is from natural causes. It does not follow however that such deaths attract the procedural obligation under Article 2 European Convention on Human Rights which requires the coroner to investigate not only how the deceased came by their death but also in what circumstances.

When is an Article 2 inquest required in respect of a detained person?

In Tyrrell v HM Senior Coroner for County Durham and Darlington, the court confirmed that the requirement to hold an Article 2 compliant inquest arises only in circumstances where there is a reason to believe that the substantive positive obligations to protect life have been breached by the state. The procedural obligation will always arise for a violent death in custody, whether self-inflicted or otherwise, as it is at least possible that the authorities failed in their obligations to protect life. Where it is established however that the death arose from natural causes then the procedural obligation under Article 2 will only arise where there has been a failure to provide timely and appropriate medical care to a detainee obviously in need of it.

The court referred to the Chief Coroner’s guidance in relation to those who are subject to deprivation of liberty safeguards which advises that where the death is from natural causes there would usually be no arguable breach of the state’s duty to protect life. This guidance was specifically endorsed by the court as a correct statement of the law with respect to death in custody and state detention.

Comment

The last annual report of the Prisons & Probation Ombudsman indicates that about 250 deaths occur in the prisons of England and Wales each year of which just over two thirds are from natural causes. This decision should therefore ensure a consistent approach in relation to inquests in respect of such deaths.

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