Kirsten Heaven, a barrister at Garden Court Chambers, writes about the inquest into the death of Jianping Liu, who died at Heathrow airport hours after being released from police custody.
Jianping Liu, a Chinese national had settled in the UK with her husband and died at Heathrow airport on 12 November 2009 after jumping from a bridge. An inquest was held into Ms Liu’s death from 7-11 March 2011 at West London Coroners Court and heard before the coroner, Ms Tagliavani, and a jury.
Ms Liu suffered from mental health problems whilst in the UK. At 1.20am on 12 November 2009 she was found by police officers wandering around Heathrow airport with a copy of her passport (with an expired visa for the UK) and appearing to speak limited or no English. As a result she was arrested for being a suspected overstayer/illegal immigrant and taken to Heathrow police station where she was detained overnight. Despite clear evidence to suggest that Ms Liu may not have fully understood English during the booking in procedure at the police station, an interpreter was not called. Ms Liu was then seen by a doctor who carried out a risk assessment but without translator. He felt that Ms Liu was at risk of self-harm and of low mood and that she wanted to return to China. It was suspected that she was a victim of trafficking. At that time, language line (a phone based translation facility in some Met police stations) was not available in Heathrow police station and the inquest heard evidence to the effect that it would have been next to impossible to call out an interpreter at that time of the morning and so officers did not attempt to access such facilities.
The following morning around 9.30am officers had it confirmed from the UK Border Agency (UKBA) that Ms Liu was lawfully in the UK and had been granted leave to remain (a fact not known to Ms Liu as she was waiting for a response from her solicitor). Consequently, she was released from police custody in a matter of minutes, again without an interpreter being called to explain what had happened and why she had been detained overnight. CCTV footage of Liu showed her to be largely unresponsive on being told she was being released and not appearing to understand what was being explained to her, namely that she had been granted indefinite leave to remain and that she should contact her solicitor. It was known to officers that she had no money and that Heathrow police station was surrounded by busy roads and motorways and in a traffic island. How to access buses was not explained. Liu had an oystercard but this was not recorded on the custody record and it was not clear at the inquest as to how officers could have known about the existence of this card (although the releasing custody officer claimed he did know about the existence of the card. CCTV showed that he did not look in Ms Liu’s bag at any stage when dealing with her).
A couple of hours after leaving the police station (at around 11am) Ms Liu was seen wandering around Heathrow airport rifling through drains and behaving oddly. She was then accosted by BAA security staff who surrounded her and subjected her to taunts and bullying. This and Ms Liu’s odd behaviour were witnessed by members of the public who formed the view that Ms Liu was vulnerable and in distress and possibly mentally unwell. They made a complaint and requested help from the BAA information desk but staff declined to intervene.
It transpired at the inquest that Heathrow Travel Care (HTC) – an organisation independent of BAA which is located in Heathrow Airport to assist the vulnerable in Heathrow airport – receive referrals via the police, immigration and BAA information desk and that, if Ms Liu’s behaviour had been reported to them, a social worker would have gone down to assess the situation and Ms Liu would have been assisted. HTC was not called by BAA and at around 12.30pm Ms Liu fell was seen falling from an airport bridge which resulted in her death. The operational manager for BAA Heathrow Terminal 1 told the inquest that Heathrow is a magnet for people with mental health problems and that his staff would make an assessment and then could call, for example, the police, HTC or paramedics. In this instance this had not happened. There had been an investigation by BAA into Ms Liu’s death which did not result in any findings. Two staff were disciplined but this fact was not recorded in the internal BAA investigation. At the inquest the adequacy of this investigation (and conduct of BAA staff) was called into question by counsel for all properly interested persons (PIPs).
During the inquest it had been suggested by counsel for all PIPs that BAA ought to be granted PIP status and/or that they may be subject to criticism during the inquest proceedings. BAA was not recognised by the coroner as a PIP either at the start of proceedings or during the inquest and were therefore not legally represented.
At the culmination of proceedings the coroner told the jury that they could not comment on what if any contribution BAA staff actions / omissions made to Ms Liu’s death (despite a request to do so from all PIPs). The jury were asked to consider a question regarding the actions of the police and their verdict was that Ms Liu took her own life and that on the balance of probabilities the police did not carry out an adequate pre-release assessment which took into account all relevant facts required by Notice 21, even though the notice itself was not known about by the person concerned. The jury could not say whether the fact caused or contributed more than minimally to the death.
The coroner was asked by Ms Liu’s family to consider making a number of recommendations to the state and/or BAA pursuant to her power in rule 43 of the Coroner Rules 1984 (this is a power to report matters to the state that arise during an inquest with the aim of preventing future deaths). This included a request to make a recommendation in relation to the adequacy of BAA’s investigation procedure into fatal incidents in Heathrow airport. The coroner declined to make any recommendations.
Independent Police Complaints Commission: ‘IPCC publishes findings from investigation into Metropolitan Police’s contact with Jianping Lui before her death’
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