Irish Penal Reform Trust

Announcement on prison death investigations must be matched with adequate resources and legal powers

19th April 2012


The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) has welcomed as highly significant the announcement today (Thursday, 19th April, 2012) that the death of any prisoner in the custody of the Irish Prison Service shall be the subject of an independent investigation by the Inspector of Prisons, and that, for the first time, these reports will be made public. The need for independent investigation of all deaths in custody has been a campaigning priority for IPRT for many years, and today’s announcement is an important step towards bringing our prison system in line with international human rights law.

At the same time, IPRT expresses some reservation over whether the proposal will satisfy all of the requirements of Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights. To this end, IPRT underlines that robust procedures, resources and legislative basis must be in place to enable the Inspector of Prisons carry out these investigations effectively.

Speaking today, Liam Herrick, Executive Director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust said:

“The need for independent investigation of all deaths in custody has been a campaigning priority for IPRT for many years and we warmly welcome the public acceptance today by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence of the principle of independent investigation.  This represents a major step in bringing our prison system into compliance with international human rights standards, and it is very significant that the investigations will apply to all deaths of prisoners in State custody, including those who have recently been let out on temporary release, and that the investigation reports will be made public. It is also very positive that the proposal acknowledges the need for the families of the deceased to be involved in the process.”

“However, only when the proposed system is operational will we be able to assess whether it meets the standards of independence required by the European Convention on Human Rights in practice. Questions remain over whether the Inspector will have the powers to compel witnesses to give evidence; what level of involvement families of the deceased person will have; and whether, in the most serious of cases, a public inquiry will be possible. In each of these areas, the specific standards required for investigation of death in custody have been established clearly by the European Court of Human Rights.”

“It is essential that a legislative framework is put in place to support this investigative function of the Inspector of Prisons. The Minister for Justice is confident that State agencies will co-operate with investigations, but the European Court of Human rights (ECtHR) has previously found that the absence of legal powers to compel witnesses can raise issues. It is also crucial that the Office of the Inspector of Prisons is adequately resourced to fulfil all of its functions promptly and efficiently. The Northern Ireland Prisoner Ombudsman has two staff assigned to investigations into prisoner deaths.”

IPRT notes that, as part of the Programme for Government, the Minister is committed to introducing legislation to strengthen the powers of the Inspector of Prison, but that the proposed legislation is not due to be published until 2013.  We call on the Minister to bring forward this legislation at the earliest opportunity.

IPRT will shortly be publishing and information booklet for the families of persons who die in prison custody.  This booklet will set out the legal rights and entitlement of families under Irish and international law, and is funded by the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences, as part of its Research Development Initiative.

For all media enquiries or interviews requests, please contact: Fíona Ní Chinnéideon087 181 2990 or



IPRT believes that there are four key areas where any new system of investigation into prison deaths will be tested against Ireland’s human rights obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights:

  • LEGAL POWERS: While the Minister has expressed confidence that State agencies will cooperate with the Inspector, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has found that investigations of deaths in custody can fail to meet the required standard because of the absence of legal powers to compel witnesses. Experience in Ireland suggests that the power to compel witnesses and evidence will still be required in contentious cases.
  • INVOLVEMENT OF FAMILIES: The level of involvement of families in any investigation will also depend on the circumstances of the death, but the ECtHR is clear that in some cases families should be able to receive the evidence of other parties during the investigation and to put questions to those other parties.  We look forward to seeing what protocols the Inspector is able to develop in this regard.
  • SPEED OF INVESTIGATION: A key requirement for any investigation system is that it can complete its work promptly.  This raises issues about adequate resources being made available to the Inspector to carry out this additional area of work. For example it hasn’t been possible for the McMorrow Commission of Investigation into the death of Gary Douche in Mountjoy Prison in August 2006 to complete its work within a reasonable time.
  • PUBLIC ACCOUNTABILITY: One of the key reasons for independent investigation of deaths in prison is to prevent future deaths.  The European Court is clear that where a death is caused by systemic failures, the requirements for public scrutiny of that death are greater, which means that in the most serious cases these investigations should take place in public.

2. IPRT position on Investigations of Deaths in Prison Custody

In section 2.2 of the IPRT Position Paper 7: Complaints, Monitoring and Inspection in Prisons (accessible here) IPRT clearly sets out what is needed in terms of independent investigations into deaths in prison custody. Elements which are required include:

  1. the investigation must be undertaken on the State’s own initiative
  2. it has to be capable of leading to a determination of responsibility and the punishment of those responsible;
  3. the investigation has to be independent both institutionally and in practice;
  4. it must be prompt;
  5. the investigation has to allow for sufficient public scrutiny to ensure accountability;
  6. and the next-of-kin has to be allowed to participate in the process.

IPRT has previously expressed concern that the cumulative effect of the law and practice concerning investigations into deaths in custody in Ireland falls short of the requirements of the ECHR, particularly in relation to the involvement of the next-of-kin in the process; the ability to establish responsibility, if any, of the Irish Prison Service; and the ability to examine the wider context in which the death took place, or any systemic issues.

See IPRT Position Paper 7: Complaints, Monitoring and Inspection in Prisons

3. Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) |

IPRT is Ireland's leading non-governmental organisation campaigning for the rights of everyone in prison and the progressive reform of Irish penal policy, with prison as a last resort.

Respect for rights in the penal system with prison as a last resort.



Contact us

  • Tel: 01 874 1400
  • More
viewed here