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Call for the Chief Coroner to investigate link between prisoner deaths and legal highs

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In July 2015 the Prison and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) released a Learning Lessons Bulletin after finding that the use of New Psychoactive Substances, commonly known as “legal highs”, was at least a factor in approximately 19 deaths between April 2012 and September 2014.

Certainly these figures are not surprising as we have ourselves noticed a rising number of cases where there is either evidence of, or a suspicion of, “legal highs” like Spice and Black Mamba being used by the Deceased in the lead up to their death. The deaths themselves range from seemingly accidental drug overdoses to self inflicted deaths like hanging.

These drugs are known to cause seizures, psychosis and attempted suicides and cannot currently be detected in routine drug testing. To date it has also been unusual for these drugs to be tested routinely by the toxicologist after death, often resulting in this not being taken into account by the Pathologist when coming to their conclusions on cause of death.

Luckily in some cases the toxicology samples are kept and further testing can be arranged, however taking into account the PPO’s own bulletin and the increase in cases where Legal Highs are a factor, perhaps these should be more routinely tested in any person who has died whilst in prison.

The cases that we currently have where “legal highs” have been identified as a factor are currently awaiting the Inquest and we will need to wait and see how the evidence unfolds as to the correlation between the use of the drugs and the death.

It is interesting, however, to note that the Prison Officers Association has themselves written directly to the Chief Coroner expressing their own concern about this issue and encouraging him to instruct all Coroners, Pathologists etc to have particular regard as to whether when there is evidence that a prisoner has been under the influence of a “legal high”, it is contributory to the death.

Gemma Vine and Rebecca Treece are Inquest Specialists at Lester Morrill and have developed a national reputation for representing bereaved families at inquests, in particular deaths in custody. For more information on how we can help, please contact us today.