Impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on fatal incident investigations

We have continued to investigate all deaths in custody during the Covid-19 pandemic but have had to adjust some of our working practices due to the restrictions in place.

Investigation evidence

We have been unable to access our office since mid-March and all our investigators have been working from home. This has led to delays in accessing post that has been sent to our office. However, in most cases, we have obtained replacement documentation in electronic format and we now request all documentation to be sent to us electronically. This has been working well and we are grateful for the cooperation from prison staff on this.

We continue to experience some difficulties with viewing CCTV footage and body-worn video camera (BWVC) footage, as well as listening to PIN phone recordings, because we cannot access equipment in our office that we would normally use to view and/or listen to this evidence.

Investigators have been able to view some CCTV and BWVC footage at home, but not all.  These arrangements are not satisfactory and we have written to HMPPS to ask that they consider how the footage can be shared with us securely, possibly as part of their Technology Transformation Programme.

Access to prisons

Since mid-March we have been unable to visit prisons. This has meant that we have been unable to conduct opening visits for investigations into non-natural deaths. We have asked for photographs of the deceased’s cell where necessary.

We would normally visit prisons to conduct interviews with staff and prisoners, which cannot currently happen. We have instead been conducting interviews by telephone, or in some cases by videoconference using MS Teams where this is available. Interviews continue to be recorded and transcribed as before. In some cases where we consider it essential to conduct interviews in person, our investigation may be delayed until we are able to do so.

At present it is unclear when we will resume our visits to prisons. We are keeping the situation under review and aim to resume our visits as soon as it is safe.

Contact with families and next of kin

We continue to engage with the families and next of kin in all investigations. We continue to write and/or telephone the next of kin at the start of every investigation. It is more difficult for us to send hard copies of reports to the next of kin at present, because we cannot access our office. However, we are obtaining an email address where possible, so that we can send the next of kin an electronic version of our investigation report.

Investigation timescales

We have been working hard to continue with our investigations and to issue our investigation reports within our normal timescales. However, some cases will inevitably be delayed. We are identifying cases that are likely to be delayed and letting the deceased’s next of kin, coroners and other relevant stakeholders know.

In some cases, there have been delays in obtaining documentation and in organising interviews (particularly in the early stages of the pandemic). This has sometimes meant that we were unable to meet our original timescale for issuing our investigation report.

Some cases have also experienced delays in obtaining the cause of death from the coroner and in receiving the clinical review report. We are unable to issue our investigation report without these, so any delays are likely to have an impact on our ability to issue our report on time.

We continue to work hard to keep delays to a minimum and to issue reports on time wherever possible.