Police and other authorities can now be prosecuted over deaths in custody in England, Scotland and Wales. Legislation which has now come into effect means police forces, the MoD, UK Border Agency and private firms managing people held in custody can be prosecuted for corporate manslaughter.
The main legislation came into force three years ago but ministers gave public bodies which hold people in detention until now to prepare for it. Campaigners have welcomed the change. Corporations can already be prosecuted for corporate manslaughter or for the equivalent offence (corporate homicide) in Scotland.
The extension of these offences to public bodies involved in detention means they could be prosecuted if they failed to ensure the safety of someone in their care.
Examples could include deaths during an immigration removal or when someone has been restrained using an unauthorised or badly taught body hold.
Case study: Mikey Powell
In 2003, Mikey Powell died of positional asphyxia while being transported in a West Midlands police van. Ten police officers were cleared at trial and the force said lessons had been learned. Mr Powell’s cousin, Tippa Naphtali, has welcomed the changes.
“Until now, families like ours could only prosecute or pursue the individual officers involved in a death in custody,” he says.
“If that was the situation in Mikey’s case, we would have the opportunity to hold the institution accountable. Now that this has become law, senior police officers will be a lot more careful about how prisoners are treated.
“I believe it will curtail the behaviour of certain officers and officials and we should see a massive reduction in deaths in custody. The institution itself can no longer hide behind crown immunity.”
The law does not cover incidents abroad, such as where someone dies in the custody of British forces. However, British nationals can be convicted of causing a death through gross negligence, even if the fatality occurred overseas.
The provisions are not retrospective, meaning the law could not apply to cases such as Jimmy Mubenga, an Angolan man who died during his deportation in October 2010.