Police Law Blog European Decisions Statutory Materials

Low threshold for an inquest jury

  • An inquest jury should have been called where a vulnerable witness fell ill and died in a police station.
  • The requirement for a jury where death results from the act or omission of a police officer is a ‘low threshold’.
  • The threshold can be cleared by suspicion that the police could or should have done more to prevent the death of someone who ‘needed looking after’.

The deceased died after falling ill at a police station that she had attended voluntarily as a witness. An alcoholic, homeless and on methadone, she was vulnerable and police statements made it clear that officers felt they owed her a duty of care. As the Chief Coroner put it, “at the very least she needed looking after”.

After giving an interview, a specialist team was called to attend whilst the deceased  placed her head on the table and appeared to fall asleep. She was heard snoring, left for some time, checked once but not roused. Nearly two hours later, officers realised she was not breathing. An ambulance was called and CPR commenced. She later died in hospital.

The coroner’s initial decision was not to hold the inquest with a jury. The High Court overturned this.

Coroners and Justice Act 2009 section 7 provides that the coroner must sit with a jury where there is reason to suspect that the person’s death resulted from an act or omission of a police officer in the execution of their duty. It is noteworthy that the requirement is not that the death was so “caused”, as provided for elsewhere in the section in relation to other bodies.

The High Court held that the ‘reason to suspect’ test is a low and objective threshold. To suspect means to have a suspicion: ‘a state of conjecture of surmise’. This falls far below prima facie proof or clear evidence. If, therefore, there is material which leads the coroner to suspect that there is a question over whether the police ‘could or should have done more’ then they must empanel a jury to answer this question.

The Court also concluded that, in any event, the coroner should have found there was sufficient reason for her to exercise her discretion to sit with a jury. Factors to take into consideration include whether the case resembled the situations covered by the mandatory provisions and also the wishes of the family. So a coroner does not need to hold that they have reason to suspect that a death resulted from an act or omission of a police officer. The situation need only resemble one where the death so resulted.

This case shows that ‘act or omission of a police officer’ is to be generously interpreted to give effect to a jury being empanelled. A jury may be required whenever the police have had involvement with a deceased person who needed looking after and/or where there is a suspicion that officers could or should have done more to prevent a death.