Wide-ranging reforms to the way deaths in prison custody are responded to in Scotland have been recommended in an independent report published today.

The Independent Review of the Response to Deaths in Prison Custody found that the system "is letting families down and fails to provide bereaved relatives with a voice". Its report follows two years of research, analysis and engagement with families affected by deaths in custody, as well as prison and NHS staff.

Its key recommendation is that an independent body should carry out a separate independent investigation into every death in prison custody. Investigations should be completed faster, and families or next of kin of people who have died should be involved at every stage.

Further recommendations include: 

  • The independent investigation should be instigated as soon as possible after the death and be completed within a matter of months. 
  • This investigation should be carried out by a body wholly independent of Scottish Ministers, the Scottish Prison Service ("SPS") or the private prison operator and the NHS. 
  • The investigation process must involve the families or next of kin of those who have died in prison custody. 
  • The independent investigatory body must have regard to applicable human rights standards. 
  • The independent investigatory body must have unfettered access to all relevant material. Corresponding duties should be placed on SPS and other relevant institutions requiring the completion, retention and production of relevant information in their possession. 
  • The independent investigatory body must be required to produce and publish reports analysing data on deaths in custody, identifying trends and systemic issues, making recommendations and promoting good practice. 
  • The independent investigatory body should be tasked in statute with the duty to monitor and report on the implementation of its recommendations. The views of bereaved families or next of kin should be taken into account in this process. 
  • Families of next of kin of those who have died in custody should have access to full non-means-tested legal aid funding for specialist representation throughout the process of investigation, following a death in custody, including at the FAI.

The Independent Review was co-chaired by Wendy Sinclair-Gieben, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for Scotland, Professor Nancy Loucks OBE, chief executive of the charity Families Outside, and Judith Robertson, chair of the Scottish Human Rights Commission. It was commissioned by the Cabinet Secretary for Justice in November 2019. 

Ms Robertson commented: "Deaths in custody need to be seen through the prism of Scotland’s human rights obligations, in particular the right to life provided for in article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The state has the duty to protect the right to life effectively, and, when someone dies in custody, a duty to provide an explanation of the cause of death.

"The review used human rights legal standards to frame our analysis and recommendations, and a human rights based approach to guide our work where possible. This included ensuring that the voices of families, and others directly affected, were heard and listened to in making recommendations."

Bereaved parent Stewart Taylor, who chaired the Family Advisory Group which took part in the review, added: "It quickly became abundantly clear that a system or uniform policy which clearly lays out procedures for dealing with such incidents across the prison estate in Scotland was either sadly lacking or not fit for purpose. Within our group only one family thought the Prison Service had dealt with them in a compassionate and helpful way. 

"It is our hope that the recommendations in this report are completely endorsed by the Justice Secretary and that the Scottish Prison Service is instructed to implement the recommendations of the report immediately after publication."

Click here to access the report.