Inquests: Be cautious when the police come knocking

A statement taken without a caution and without legal advice is admissible at trial if charges are subsequently brought.

The decision of the Court of Appeal in the well-publicised case of the speedboat accident on the Thames serves as a salutary reminder to health and care professionals that a statement taken without caution is admissible at a criminal trial, if charges are subsequently brought.

Some may remember the facts of this case involving the drowning of Miss Brown who was thrown out of a speedboat while on an outing with her boyfriend, Mr Shepherd. Both parties had been drinking and neither were wearing life jackets. An inexperienced Miss Brown took over the driving and struck a submerged tree on the Thames. Mr Shepherd was rescued from the water and taken into hospital. The next day he was interviewed by a police officer as a significant witness but not under caution; the interview was recorded. The application of the PACE codes had not been triggered.

In the appeal arising out of the case of R v Shepherd, the CA gave a judgment setting out whether a statement taken from a witness before a criminal charge has been considered and without caution and legal support can be later used in a prosecution against that witness. The court ruled that the interview with Mr Shepherd was admissible and fairness did not demand that it be excluded in its entirety but the material relating to his sobriety would be excluded.

Interesting inquest practice points for health and care professionals

There may be times when the police act as a coroner’s officer and act on his or her behalf in collecting evidence from staff involved in the care of the deceased. Healthcare professionals may be asked to ‘assist’ the police and to give a voluntary statement. There may be no obligation upon the individual but it is, of course, best practice for staff to assist in the public interest. This can be stressful for individuals and so, it is always helpful to agree proper procedures with the police beforehand in order to protect the position of staff and make sure they feel well supported.

If an individual is under arrest, or a statement is to be provided under caution, then other rules apply: you should always check the basis upon which the police intend to take a statement.

Comment

The Shepherd case is a useful warning for health and care professionals giving voluntary statements to the police. It emphasises the importance of seeking legal advice and making sure there is an agreed protocol with the police if they launch an investigation into a death – even if it is on behalf of the coroner. Do get in touch with Stuart Knowles if you would like support with agreeing a protocol with the police.

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