Richard O’Brien

£324,000 payout to the family of a man who died in police custody

all credits: The Guardian
published: 14 May 2002

News updates listed at the foot of this item

The family of a man who died after being arrested by police won a £324,000 payout from Scotland Yard yesterday, but no apology. Richard O’Brien, 37, died in April 1994 after being pinned to the ground by three officers who said they were arresting him for being drunk and disorderly. Mr O’Brien’s family say that his pleas that he could not breathe were ignored, and alleged that officers shouted anti-Irish abuse at him. Mr O’Brien suffered injuries in 31 areas including 12 cuts to the face and head.

In 1995 an inquest jury found the 19 stone father of seven had been “unlawfully killed”; three officers stood trial for his manslaughter in 1999 and were acquitted. Mr O’Brien, a market trader, died of postural asphyxia when he was held down after police were called to trouble at a hall in Walworth, south-east London, in April 1994.

The payout by Scotland Yard followed a high court ruling two years ago that the force was liable for the death under the Fatal Accidents Act. Simon Taylor, counsel for Alison O’Brien, the mother of the couple’s seven children, now aged between 23 and 11, told Mr Justice Buckley that Mr O’Brien “was unlawfully killed by officers of the Metropolitan police”.

The trouble was nothing to do with the O’Brien’s but some officers took offence at Mr O’Brien leaving the hall and waiting outside for his family to join him, he said. “He was put on the ground with officers holding him in a position which can only be described as dangerous, and after 15 minutes or so on the ground, he died,” Mr Taylor said.

The settlement is made up of £99,000 to Alison O’Brien for false imprisonment and the psychological damage she suffered, the wrongful detention of two of the couple’s children, and the assault of one of them.

The O’Brien’s’ solicitor, Fiona Murphy, said that police had fought the case all the way, exacerbating the family’s trauma. She said Scotland Yard had claimed the compensation should be lower because Mr O’Brien did not run a business as the family claimed.

Ms Murphy said: “It is frustrating that the commissioner fought it to the door of the court. There has been no apology or official recognition of their responsibility.”

Deborah Coles of Inquest, an organisation which campaigns against deaths in custody, said: “This may be the biggest payout by police for a death in custody. “What’s appalling is that the police have failed to apologise, despite the unlawful killing verdict, despite all the evidence.”

At the inquest the coroner, Sir Montague Levine, said the case reflected “an appalling lack of instruction” among officers in restraint techniques.

In a statement, Scotland Yard said: “We deeply regret the death of Mr O’Brien, and the distress this has caused his family. Since Mr O’Brien died we have done much to prevent such tragedies. “Every officer on frontline policing has been trained in emergency life saving and in dealing with sensitive arrest situations.”

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Follow-up News:

£324,000 payout to family of man who died in custody
14 May 2002

Too many Irish dying in custody
26 August 1999

CPS criticised over custody deaths
11 August 1999

DPP accused of misleading court over death in custody
25 July 1997

Death of Richard O’Brien

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