In November 1995, 18 year old Private Cheryl James was found dead near Deepcut Barracks with a bullet wound to her head. Today, a coroner told Cheryl’s family that the Army had failed its duty of care towards her, in part leading to her suicide.
The Human Rights Act enables Cheryl James’ family to bring this new inquest, represented by the human rights organisation Liberty. Under the Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the right to life, the state has a duty to properly investigate suspicious deaths of military service personnel.
An inquest is an investigation by a coroner into a death. Inquests have existed for hundreds of years but new-style ‘enhanced’ investigations into deaths of people who died whilst under the care of the state are very new.
The ability of coroners to give more detailed ‘narrative’ verdicts, examining not just the basic facts of a death but also the surrounding circumstances, was introduced by a 2004 case called Middleton. The case, which arose as a result of the Human Rights Act coming into force in 2000, revolutionised the inquest system. It has prompted wide-ranging investigations into deaths such as the recent Hillsborough inquests, where serious failings by the police were exposed. The duty to investigate under the right to life also prompted the Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust Inquiry where the NHS was severely criticised for hundreds of deaths at a hospital in Staffordshire.
What happened at Deepcut Barracks?
In addition to Private Cheryl James’ death, there were three other deaths at Deepcut army barracks between 1995 and 2002. The other deceased persons were also young army recruits: Private Sean Benton (20 years old), Private Geoff Gray (17) and Private James Collison (17). Each was found with fatal gunshot wounds.
The first investigations into the deaths at Deepcut Barracks were conducted by Surrey Police and the Royal Military Police. Coroners’ inquests in each case returned a verdict of suicide. A subsequent review by Surrey Police maintained these verdicts. However, these findings were rejected by the soldiers’ families, who sought a judicial inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the deaths.
On 18 July 2014, it was announced that a new inquest had been ordered by the UK High Court into the death of Private Cheryl James following a legal challenge by her family, with the assistance of human rights campaign group Liberty. Brian Barker QC was appointed as Coroner to conduct the fresh inquest.
What have the new inquests found?
Coroner Brian Barker QC has found that Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the right to life, is engaged in this case. The European Convention on Human Rights takes effect in UK law through the Human Rights Act.
The right to life includes an obligation on States, not only to refrain from taking life unjustifiably, but also to properly investigate the deaths of people who are within the care of the State. Armed forces personnel fall into the care of the State by virtue of the chain of military command.
The Coroner has concluded that Deepcut army barracks failed in its duty of care to young recruits. He also criticised the first investigation into Private Cheryl James’ death, stating that it is “highly regrettable that the investigation… was not more thorough” and, had it been, “the scientific evidence might have been of far better quality”.
He concluded that the death was suicide, contributed to by systemic failings.
The right to a proper investigation of Cheryl James’ death, obtained through the Human Rights Act, enabled her family to discover the truth about the circumstances surrounding her death. The inquest into the death of Cheryl James may also enable the families of other soldiers who have died in mysterious circumstances to challenge the original verdicts.
At time of writing the verdict is still being given and can be followed live here
Learn more about how human rights protect soldiers with our previous post. Learn about the right to life with our infographic poster and explainer. Read about the importance of the Human Rights Act with our explainer and our infographic: What Human Rights Do For All Of Us.