Inquest into the death of Alice Gross: family calls for careful, targeted reform of system for exchanging information about high-risk offenders

04 July 2016

The family of Alice Gross have called for careful, targeted reform of the system for exchanging information about high-risk offenders across Europe, after the inquest into their daughter’s death exposed serious inadequacies.

Alice’s parents Ros Hodgkiss and Jose Gross, and her sister Nina Gross, also reiterated their request that those with an anti-immigration agenda not exploit her death to further their own aims. The family believe in freedom of movement and human rights – as did Alice, who grew up in a multicultural, multi-faith community in west London.

Alice’s family, represented by Liberty, used the Human Rights Act to secure an Article 2 inquest – meaning it investigated wider questions around what authorities knew, or should have known, about her murderer and the systems available to let authorities find out about his background.

A jury at the Royal Courts of Justice today found Alice had been unlawfully killed.

Background

Alice went missing in August 2014. Her body was discovered on 30 September 2014 in the River Brent in Ealing, London. Arnis Zalkalns, a builder from Latvia who had come to the UK in 2007, had been named as a suspect in her disappearance. His body was later found hanging nearby.

In January 2015, police announced they believed Zalkalns was responsible. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) confirmed he would have been charged with Alice’s murder, had he lived.

Zalkalns had previously been convicted of murdering his wife in Latvia. He also had a firearms and sexual offence on his record there. He had been imprisoned, but was released after seven years and travelled to the UK in 2007.

Critical gaps

The inquest revealed that, as long ago as 2006, an EU law was in force which allowed countries to exchange details of people’s criminal convictions – but it seems the Home Office did nothing to make UK police forces aware they could obtain such information.

This meant that, when UK police arrested a foreign national, they were not generally seeking background checks from authorities in his or her country of origin – leaving potentially critical gaps in their knowledge of individuals’ backgrounds and the danger they posed.

When Zalkalns came to the UK in 2007, authorities were not aware of his murder and other convictions. The Home Office accepted that, if they had been, it was highly unlikely they would have let him enter the country.

It was not until 2008 that the Home Office issued any guidance to police forces – but there appears to have been little or no dissemination, and police still seem to have been largely unaware of it.

In 2009, Zalkalns was arrested on suspicion of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl in London. Although it was open to them to do so, police did not conduct a check of Zalkalns’ Latvian criminal record, or a background check in that country. The inquest heard many officers remained unaware of the arrangements that existed for them to obtain this information.

If checks had been carried out at that time, Zalkalns’ murder conviction would have come to light.

When Alice went missing and Zalkalns became a person of interest in 2014, police finally obtained his criminal record certificate from Latvia. By this time, it revealed no convictions. This is because under Latvian law his conviction became spent eight years after his release from prison.

This is in striking contrast to the UK system, where convicted murderers must serve a minimum sentence, are released only when the Parole Board considers it safe and remain on licence for life.

In the end, it was Interpol that held the information and notified the Metropolitan Police of Zalkalns’ offending history.

The system is not fixed

As a direct consequence of Alice’s death, there is now much better and comprehensive information-sharing about criminal convictions across Europe. When a foreign national is arrested, the Metropolitan Police now automatically perform a background check in his or her home country.

However, crucially, the system remains reactive rather than proactive. A person with a conviction for a serious violent or sexual offence who comes to the UK still has to be arrested for a further offence before that check is performed.

Alice’s family wish to see a targeted, proportionate and proactive system of information-sharing about the relatively small number of very high-risk offenders who travel across borders, and whose actions can have catastrophic consequences.

This would allow authorities to properly fulfil their duty under the Human Rights Act to protect the public. There are already mechanisms in place in the EU that would enable this to happen in principle.

Responding to the verdict, Alice’s parents Ros Hodgkiss and Jose Gross said: “Like Alice, our family is in favour of freedom of movement and all the good things it has brought to our lives. We do not believe that any citizen deserves to be treated differently based on their race or nationality.

“Our only concern has been to ensure that there are fair and proportionate rules governing the movement of serious criminals within Europe, whether that is a Latvian coming to the UK or a dangerous UK citizen travelling abroad.”

Following the inquest's conclusion, the Gross family would like to encourage people to donate to Alice's Youth Music Fund.

ENDS

The family's full statement can be found here.

Contact: Liberty press office on 0207 378 3656, 07973 831 128 or pressoffice@liberty-human-rights.org.uk.