Investigations into a death following Garda contact
Article 2 of The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) states that everyone’s right to life shall be protected by law. This right encompasses both positive and negative obligations for the State: a negative obligation not to take life and a positive obligation to protect life.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has held that, when there has been a death following police contact, the State is obliged to conduct an effective, official and independent investigation. The ECtHR has developed five principles for the effective investigation of complaints against the police where article 2 of the ECHR has engaged. These have been summarised as follows by the European Commissioner on Human Rights, Thomas Hammerberg:
- Independence – there should not be institutional or hierarchical connections between the investigators and the officer complained against and there should be practical independence;
- Adequacy – the investigation should be capable of gathering evidence to determine whether police behaviour was unlawful and to identify and punish those responsible;
- Promptness – the investigation should be conducted promptly and in an expeditious manner in order to maintain confidence in the rule of law;
- Public Scrutiny – procedures and decision making should be open and transparent in order to ensure accountability; and
- Victim Involvement – the complainant should be involved in the complaints process in order to safeguard his or her legitimate interests.
Because of the first principle (independence), while investigations into a death are usually conducted by the Garda Síochána, in cases where a death follows police contact, investigations are undertaken by the Garda Ombudsman. GSOC opened 15 such investigations in 2015.
Investigations into deaths following police contact should adhere to all of the principles above to be compliant with the ECHR. The Garda Ombudsman alone does not ensure that all of these principles are upheld; but it plays a part in doing so, in tandem with the Office of the DPP, the Coroner’s Court and other State bodies.
Even if there is no evidence of criminality, in the case of a death following police contact, in the vast majority of cases GSOC will send a file to the DPP, as only she can decide on whether a criminal prosecution should be directed.
Where there has been a death following police contact an inquest is held to publicly establish the circumstances of the death. This is overseen by a Coroner with assistance provided by the investigating agency.
GSOC has several trained Family Liaison Officers in its Investigations team to provide support for bereaved families during such cases. Following its investigations, GSOC also provides a report to the family of the deceased. This is usually a detailed written report, but in certain cases it may be a verbal briefing instead.