The death of the former soldier Christopher Alder in 1998 is one of the most controversial incidents to have occurred in police custody. It recently emerged that his body had been kept in a morgue for more than a decade without the knowledge of his family, who had buried the wrong body.
Due to the authorities’ multiple failings in dealing with the circumstances of Alder’s death, the UK Government has made a unilateral declaration, in the form of an apology, with the European Court of Human Rights.
Alder died in police custody after he was arrested for causing disturbance at a hospital, to which he had been taken after his involvement in a dispute. Closed-circuit TV footage showed that Alder had been left on the floor of the police station with his hands cuffed, struggling to breathe.
Despite several police officers present at the scene, no-one intervened as they thought Alder was faking the symptoms. Some of the officers were also recorded as imitating the sound of a monkey.
The cumulative failures of the Humberside police force have now resulted in the Government apologising for the failures, and pain, suffered by the deceased and his family. This move amounts to a formal recognition by the Government that it failed to act in accordance with its obligations under the Convention.
These types of formal acknowledgements are rare attempts by the Government to prevent a hearing of the case before the European Court of Human Rights.
The Government has offered to pay the deceased’s family £29,000 as an ex gratia payment, which is also intended to reimburse them for any legal costs they might have incurred. The Government hopes that this ‘settlement’ will prevent a hearing of the case before the court.
Part of the apology reads, “The government of the United Kingdom regrets the occurrence of the actions which have led to the bringing of the present application, in particular the treatment in custody of the applicant’s brother, Mr Christopher Alder, and the anguish that this treatment and his death have caused to his family.
“The government accepts that the lack of an effective and independent investigation in this case constitutes a violation of the procedural obligations in articles 2 and 3 of the Convention.”
The human rights organisation Liberty, which has supported the Adler family through its battle, welcomed the Government’s admission of wrongdoing. The charity’s legal officer, Christina Ferguson, said “More than 13 years on still no one in the police has been held responsible for Christopher’s shocking death. Proper accountability is vital in these situations and in future the Independent Police Complaints Commission must take stronger, more decisive action where serious human rights violations occur.
“The offence of misconduct in public office is completely inadequate in these circumstances – as demonstrated by the fact that these officers were somehow cleared of it. Sadly admissions and apologies will matter little if such tragic cases keep occurring.”
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