Ministry of Justice settles claim alleging operation of IPP sentence breached human rights following death of prisoner

Posted on: 3rd December 2020

The Ministry of Justice has settled a civil claim brought by the family of Tommy Nicol, an IPP prisoner at HMP The Mount, following his death in 2015.

In 2009, after a string of minor offences, Tommy was sentenced to a minimum four-year prison term, under the now-abolished Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) sentencing scheme. In 2015, nearly two years after the expiry of his tariff and having lost hope that he would ever be released from prison, he took his own life. Before he died, Tommy described his sentence as “psychological torture of a person who is doing 99 years.”

The family, represented by Hodge Jones & Allen Solicitors, put forward a claim which included that the operation of the IPP sentence caused Tommy’s death, and the administration of it constituted a breach of his right to life, under the Human Rights Act 1998.

First used in 2005, IPP sentences set a minimum term which an offender must spend in prison, but no maximum term.

Since their creation, IPPs were used far more widely than intended, with many sentences issued to offenders who committed low level crimes with prison terms as short as two years, the shortest being 28 days. At one point, they were handed down at a rate of more than 800 a year, which, as a result led to more than 9,000 offenders serving IPP sentences with no end date.

While IPPs were abolished in 2012, the changes were not retrospective, and there remains thousands of people serving time in prison under IPP sentencing who will only be released when they have fulfilled the requirements of the Parole Board.

In 2014, Tommy found that he was unable to access courses and rehabilitative programmes that were necessary to prove to the parole board that he was safe to be released. Faced with decreasing options for his release, Tommy commenced hunger strikes, made formal complaints and requested to be moved to segregation to protest against the failure to progress is rehabilitation.

In 2015, six years in, Tommy was told by the Parole Board that the next review would be in 2017 – eight years after he was jailed. Shortly after this news, Tommy’s mental health sharply deteriorated and showed symptoms of psychosis and became suicidal. He began severely harming himself and then took his own life in September 2015.

Following the inquest into his death, Tommy’s family brought a claim against the Ministry of Justice alleging that the prison systems’ failure to provide Tommy with adequate access to the necessary rehabilitative courses caused him to lose hope of ever being released, thereby causing his mental health deterioration and ultimately his suicide. They claimed that this constituted a breach of his Right to Life under Article 2 ECHR and also of duties to prevent prisoners from suffering from inhuman and degrading treatment under Article 3 ECHR. In response, the Ministry of Justice agreed to settle the claim before the claim proceeded to trial.

The family’s claim was supported by evidence in the form of a report by Consultant Forensic Psychiatrist, Dr Dinesh Maganty. The report highlighted that:

“[Tommy was] caught in a vicious cycle, as are many individuals who have received IPP sentences. This cycle involves the IPP prisoner being told that they have to complete offender behavioural programmes and that they would only be allowed to move through the prison system and subsequently be released if they complete such programmes. The threshold for gaining access to such programmes is set at an extremely high level or there is lack of availability of such programmes in sufficient numbers. Therefore they are not provided with such places on such programmes and they continue to be detained in prison indefinitely.

“Having an indeterminate sentence continued his experience of trauma and having no prospect of release increased his risk of suicide. Having no hope and no prospect of release repeatedly re-traumatised him.”

The report stipulated that: “research has shown that IPP sentences with no hope of release compounded by lack of access to appropriate therapeutic programmes to address underlying issues of trauma and mental health difficulties in a prison setting together with lack of therapeutic programmes to address reoffending leads to a sense of hopelessness, significantly increasing risk of self-harm and suicide.

“A human being has to suffer extreme suffering to be pushed to take one’s own life. This was directly caused by deterioration in his mental health and the hopelessness caused by his IPP sentence, both of which are a vicious cycle, i.e. hopelessness caused by his IPP sentence itself led to deterioration in his mental health and deterioration in his mental health together with hopelessness, led to his suicide due to the extreme suffering that these experiences entailed.”

Tommy’s sister, Donna Mooney, has been campaigning tirelessly for changes to the IPP sentence, including remaining IPP prisoners on minimum terms of four years or less to be immediately switched to determinate sentences and for the licence lengths to be made proportionate to the length of the minimum term, rather than the current indefinite licences for all released IPP prisoners. Donna recently met with Justice Secretary Robert Buckland to discuss the situation, and has recently launched a new campaign, Ungripp: https://www.ungripp.com

Donna said: “The last five years have been a long and painful journey. While we still have a fair way to go, at the very least, the settlement of our claim provides our family with some semblance of justice. From the very beginning, Tommy had his humanity taken away from him – he was demonised throughout his trial and subsequent sentencing and his treatment, both in prison and by the parole board. This is the only time that our family has felt any form of empathy towards Tommy’s situation, or acknowledgment that his basic human rights were not met.

“None of this will bring him back, but this evidence will support our campaign that all existing IPP sentences must be converted to become fixed term sentences. And while this will remain our focus, we hope to achieve smaller changes in the meantime, such as reversing the Parole Test so that IPP prisoners only remain in prison if there is evidence they are a risk to the public, or ensuring that the MOJ have an understanding of the specific needs of prisoners still coping with IPP sentences, including the essential mental health support that Tommy never had.”

In his evidence at the inquest, Dr Maganty was asked whether he thought the IPP sentence, which he had identified as a risk factor for Tommy taking his own life, contributed more than minimally to his death. In response, Dr Maganty said that there was a “…high degree of certainty, more than anything else.” He continued: “One crucial element in any self-inflicted death is loss of hope”. He also went on to refer to prisoners being “caught in [a] vicious cycle.”

Maganty also referenced the “unjust” nature of such sentences where IPP prisoners know that their sentence is no longer legal but would nevertheless not be reversed. Furthermore that this injustice could be used against IPP prisoners who seek recognition of this unfairness but are then deemed to have a “lack of insight” into their offence and be seen as ‘protesting [their] sentence’ which means they can’t access offender programmes.

Maganty’s went on “That in turn leads to can’t be released…rate of self-harm in IPP prisoners is 70% higher and suicide is about 80% higher. Unfortunately this is a recognised feature of what is happening to IPP prisoners as a group because of that loss of hope.”

The family’s legal team was led by Jocelyn Cockburn and Aston Luff, human rights solicitors from Hodge Jones & Allen.

Aston Luff said: “It was made very clear by the removal of IPP sentencing that they were not fit for purpose, and yet there are still thousands of people still suffering at their hands – eight years after they were abolished. Tommy’s death could have been prevented. He’d served his four-year sentence, he’d asked to be placed on relevant courses and programmes, but he became stuck in a bureaucratic nightmare and, ultimately, he and his family were let down by a legal system purported to protect them. We don’t want anyone else to feel, like Tommy did, that they have no hope. By winning this claim and telling Tommy’s story, this is another step forward in getting IPPs abolished for good.”

Jocelyn Cockburn said: “It defies belief that so many IPP prisoners who have completed their tariff remain in prison today – some eight years after these sentences were abolished because they are deemed to be inhumane. The tragedy for prisoners like Tommy is that they become victims of the deterioration in their mental health caused by the IPP sentence such that it becomes increasingly unlikely that they can navigate the difficult path towards release. This family’s campaign adds a compelling voice for the Government to act upon this injustice.”

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