My HRA: Janet Alder

15 February 2013
Corinna Ferguson, Legal Officer

Last week we blogged about the Home Affairs Select Committee’s scathing report on the Independent Police Complaints Commission, which painted a bleak picture of an overwhelmed body incapable of delivering the necessary scrutiny – not least of deaths in custody.

That must have struck a sombre chord with Liberty client Janet Alder, whose brother Christopher choked to death while police officers watched, chatted and joked at Hull Police Station in 1998. None of the officers faced any criminal or disciplinary penalty. Janet was, however, able to turn to our human rights framework to seek some justice for her brother, and today we explore her story in the latest in our Common Values series of blogs and short films.

Father-of-two Christopher, 37, was enjoying a night out with friends when he was assaulted during a nightclub fracas. He hit his head and was taken to hospital. The police visited Christopher as a complainant, but then arrested him after his behaviour deteriorated. After a five-minute journey in a police van, he emerged unconscious with his trousers to his knees.

“He can be seen on CCTV being dragged into the custody suite and laid on the floor,” Janet says. “He lays there for 11 minutes, gasping for his life, without any attention given to him by the police at all. They stand about, looking at charging him with more severe charges, and Christopher dies on the custody suite floor.”

In 2000 an inquest delivered an unlawful killing verdict, with the jury concluding that Christopher might have survived with police assistance. “I was really expecting after an unlawful killing verdict for the process to be automatic – that the police officers would be charged with gross negligence manslaughter,” Janet recalls. “I was mistaken.”

Liberty acted for Janet, who had to take her case to the European Court of Human Rights as it preceded the Human Rights Act coming into force. Her fight took 13 long years. “I decided to carry on the fight, as long as it took, because I wanted some accountability,” she explains. The Government fought the case until the final stages, before finally admitting violations of Articles 2, 3 and 14.

“What it’s shown me is that if in 1998 the Human Rights Act had been in force, the Government would have found it a lot harder to deny Christopher’s right to life, his inhuman and degrading treatment and the discrimination in this case,” Janet continues. “I think they would have been forced into a position of doing the right thing.

“The whole experience has emphasised to me that everybody’s got human rights; everybody’s entitled to justice,” she adds. “I believe that human rights really get a bad press. I don’t think people understand the Human Rights Act – it affects every single one of us. To scrap it would be dangerous – there wouldn’t be justice in this country for a lot of people.”

Watch: Benedict Cumberbatch tells Janet's story