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Rashan Charles

Why Is it So Hard to Get Justice for People Killed in Police Custody?

Why so many cases against police violence fail.
A protest following the death of Rashan Charles (Photo by Jake Lewis)

The aftermath of the death of Rashan Charles – the third black man to die at the hands of police in the past six weeks – was characterised by an outpouring of grief and anger from the local community. A series of marches and vigils demanded #JusticeForRash, who died after being tackled to the floor of a shop by a police officer in Dalston.

Considering that grief spilled over into riots following the shooting of Mark Duggan by police in 2011, obtaining justice for Rashan Charles' family, friends, and community seems particularly urgent. The release of Met Police data this week, which revealed that the police use force disproportionately against black people is hardly going to help to build community trust in the police.


A week after Rashan Charles was killed, the IPCC confirmed that they will be working to establish whether there is "an indication there may have been misconduct or criminality" in the circumstances of his death. Today, the IPCC released a statement confirming that the object Rashan allegedly swallowed – an detail which many on social media were quick to decide justified the officer's actions – did not contain drugs. This information will likely help Charles' family in building a case for prosecution. Nonetheless, the odds are still stacked against them: the majority of cases which examine unlawful killing by state agents in the UK either collapse, or do not lead to a prosecution.

So, why are chances of securing justice in cases like that of Rashan Charles so slim? Reflecting on the of stark absence of successful prosecutions after a death in police custody, Deborah Coles, the Director of the charity Inquest, cited a "cultural problem within the criminal justice system of not investigating these deaths as if a crime has been committed."

"This is one of the biggest frustrations that bereaving families face," she said.

Coles notes that the main problem with the IPCC is the inconsistent standard of its investigations. Where prosecutions are made, this is largely because the family have benefitted from quality legal representation, in combination with expert examination of evidence. This is how the prosecution of PC Simon Harwood for the manslaughter of Ian Tomlinson – a newspaper seller who died after being assaulted by a police officer during the 2009 G20 summit protests – was enabled. Coles noted that: "In the case of Ian Tomlinson, there was sufficient scrutiny of the evidence at inquest; pressure was brought to bear on the Crown Prosecution Service, and appropriate criminal charges were made". These conditions are, Coles suggests, in part down to chance, and in some cases thanks to the ability of families to fund their legal representation.


Most families do not have savings squirrelled away in case they need to represent themselves in an inquest. Many families face significant financial hurdles in getting legal support. Currently, families of individuals who die in police custody do not have an automatic right to legal aid. Families who can't afford pricey lawyers are expected to navigate the intrusive processes of the Legal Aid Agency (LAA). This involves rigorous examination of the financial records of the extended family, including those outside of the scope of the investigation and inquest. Less affluent families have to manage this while also grieving for their relative and arranging and financing funerals – an additional ordeal that simply does not exist for families who can fund their own legal representation.

Kat Craig, a human rights lawyer who has represented clients in police brutality and misconduct cases, said that this frequently results in: "an army of state agents all being paid huge amounts of public money, in comparison to bereaving families who are the most vulnerable and unsupported, often struggling to secure legal aid or pro bono assistance."

Legal Aid, which has been systematically chipped away over the past 15 years, is only granted if families earn below a low income threshold.There must be grounds for suspicion that the state has breached its legal obligation to protect the "right to life", or evidence of a "wider public interest" in the bereaved families' involvement in the inquest – for example, if the coroner would be assisted in uncovering systemic failings by the family being represented.


So if, after all that, a family manages to secure legal representation, it'll then have to endure what Coles describes as the "protracted nature of the investigation processes that follow these kinds of deaths". The inquest into the death of Sarah Reed, who was found with a ligature around her neck in Holloway prison after a series of failings by those responsible for her care, took a year and a half to materialise. The investigation and subsequent inquest into the death of Sean Rigg who died in police custody in Brixton took four years to conclude. The legal maxim: "justice delayed is justice denied" seems apt in these cases.

Obtaining justice can be further impeded by the judges themselves. Families face a judiciary that is overwhelmingly steered by old, upper middle class, white men.

Pale, male and stale judges can bring their racial biases into the courtroom. Last year Peter Herbert, a crown court judge spoke out against the endemic levels of "casual discrimination" in the justice system, and a 2016 report by David Lammy MP revealed that, amongst other data, women of colour are over 40 percent more likely than white women to be convicted at magistrates' court.

As Craig says: "These men don't experience life in the way young, black, working class people experience it, which significantly impedes equal access to justice for everybody, regardless of their background."

On Friday Rashan Charles' family announced in a statement that they "are determined to get answers". The voices and wishes of bereaved families and communities should be firmly centred in discussions around justice for those killed by police – after all, these families are so often at the heart of driving meaningful change in the justice system. In 2015 the recommendation of Marcia Rigg, the sister of Sean Rigg, that police officers be prevented from retiring or resigning to avoid dismissal while disciplinary proceedings are being carried out was finally implemented. Previously, dodging accountability for killing someone on the job was as easy as quitting your post.

Getting justice seems is uphill struggle in the face of government spending cuts and an institutionally racist criminal justice system. We can only hope that Rashan Charles' family get the redress they are demanding, and failing that the peace from public scrutiny they deserve, to grieve their loss.