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Deaths in detention centres


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Razor Wire by Derek Bridges
Razor Wire by Derek Bridges

The news coverage over the weekend reporting on the very recent deaths of three men in detention centres is yet another reminder that the system is, in my view, truly abhorrent.

The Guardian reported that two men died from suspected heart attacks at Colnbrook near Heathrow airport.  One of the men is Muhammad Shukat, who was 47 years old and of Pakistani nationality.  He died on 2 July.  The article reports that there was some considerable delay between the time that Muhammad Shukat collapsed at 6am and when his roommate raised the alarm and the time when an ambulance was actually called at 7.20am.  A post-mortem found the provisional cause of death to be coronary heart disease.

The second man who died at Colnbrook has not yet been named, but he seems to have been relatively young at 35 years of age.  He was found dead in his cell at 10.30am on 31 July. The post-mortem found the cause of death to be a ruptured aorta and his death is being treated as unexplained.

The third man, also aged 35 years old, killed himself at the Campsfield House detention centre in Oxfordshire on 2 August.

As Emma Ginn from Medical Justice says in the Guardian article, this only highlights the already very high level of concern held in respect of the provision of healthcare in detention centres.  Whether that is in response to emergencies or in terms of longer term medical conditions.  She sets out that:

“Based on medical evidence from many hundreds of detainees, Medical Justice has documented the disturbingly inadequate healthcare provision that often vulnerable immigration detainees are subjected to in Colnbrook and other immigration removal centres… [this] combined with the perilous and frightening conditions of detention, is a lethal cocktail, a disaster waiting to happen.”

A smidgeon of comfort is to be found in the recent case-law on unlawful detention. Faced with such tragic events, I do have difficulty with describing the courts’ favourable rulings a success.  Nevertheless, the High Court ruled on Friday 5 August in S v SSHD [2011] EWHC 2120 (Admin) that the UKBA had unlawfully detained a man with serious mental illness between April and September 2010 and that the circumstances of his detention at Harmondsworth breached Article 3 ECHR, the right not to be subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment.

It was well documented in S’s case that, both from his time in prison and in a psychiatric hospital, that detention had caused deterioration in his psychiatric state, precipitating psychotic symptoms and incidents of serious self harm.  The medical reports that followed S from the hospital on 23 April 2010 specifically warned that detention would cause him to regress to a state that he would once again require hospital admission.  However in deciding to detain S, the UKBA, inexplicably, stated that there was “no evidence” that he was mentally ill. The High Court found that the failure at the outset to understand and appreciate the nature and degree of S’s mental illness and to apply its own published policy regarding the detention of those with serious mental conditions to the circumstances of S’s case was repeated by UKBA officials until his release on bail by the High Court on 29 September 2010.

It is believed to be the first time that a UK court has found detention at an immigration removal centre to have breached Article 3 and the case has been adjourned for the issue of relief and damages to be considered (see here for press release and here for the full judgment).

And talking of damages, the Court of Appeal found in OM, R (on the application of) v SSHD [2011] EWCA Civ 909 that though the detention of a mentally ill person was unlawful due to a failure by the Secretary of State to consult her own policy, she was not entitled to damages as she could have been lawfully detained if the policy had been applied.  By now that outcome will probably sound familiar to you and of course follows the Supreme Court judgment in Lumba (see here for previous FM post).

So I have to ask:  if ordering the UKBA to pay damages is not option, do we have to wait for more deaths and/or inhuman and degrading treatment before we truly get to the bottom of this ?

For more statistics compiled by Medical Justice see here.

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Picture of Sarah Pinder

Sarah Pinder

Sarah is a specialist immigration barrister at Goldsmith Chambers in London. She also practices in family law and has a particular interest in cross-over issues within the two areas of law. Prior to joining the Bar, Sarah worked for 6 years in the not-for-profit sector as a specialist immigration caseworker.