Women compensated by the Ministry of Justice for strip-searches in prison

Tuesday 7 March 2017

In 2013, the women, who were serving their sentences in the same prison, were separately informed that they were being made the subject of a “targeted” search.

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The two women, who were already vulnerable due to their status as prisoners, their mental ill health and their histories of experience of sexual abuse and violence, were made to remove their clothing, including their underwear, and to expose their breasts and genitals to prison officers. Nothing was found during the course of either search. The women were extremely distressed and felt violated by the searches and both sustained psychiatric injury as a result.

The searches were carried out despite policy changes having been made following the 2007 Report by Baroness Corston of a Review of Women With Particular Vulnerabilities in the Criminal Justice System, in which Baroness Corston said:

There is one particular aspect of entrenched prison routine that I consider wholly unacceptable for women and which must be radically changed immediately in its present form. This is the regular, repetitive, unnecessary use of strip-searching. Strip-searching is humiliating, degrading and undignified for a woman and a dreadful invasion of privacy. For women who have suffered past abuse, particularly sexual abuse, it is an appalling introduction to prison life and an unwelcome reminder of previous victimisation. It is unpleasant for staff and works against building good relationships with women, especially new receptions. I well understand that drugs and other contraband must be kept out of prison and that there may be a case for routine strip-searching on first reception into prison. But even this procedure is dubious for women given that drugs can be secreted internally, rendering strip-searching ineffective in any event, as routine internal searching is already seen as unacceptable. A group of women in one prison, including some who suffered domestic abuse and some who had not, described strip-searching as making them feel embarrassed, invaded, degraded, uncomfortable, vulnerable, humiliated, ashamed, violated and dirty.

Both women wanted to ensure that other women in prison did not have the same negative experiences that they had had and, as a result of previous litigation by them, further policy changes have since been made.

The women brought claims against the Ministry of Justice under the Human Rights Act 1998, alleging breaches of the prohibition on torture, inhuman and degrading treatment and breaches of their rights to private and family life under Articles 3 and 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. They also brought a claim in misfeasance in public office. The Ministry of Justice admitted that the searches were unlawful and in breach of Article 8, insofar as the women were required to remove their underwear during the course of the searches.

In February 2017, the Ministry of Justice agreed to pay damages and costs to both women in full and final settlement of their claims.

Una Morris was instructed by Nia Williams of Saunders Law to represent the women at trial and negotiated settlement of the claims. Maya Sikand, Richard Reynolds and Paul Clark were also instructed to represent the women at various points during the case. This case demonstrates the expertise within our Claims Against the Police and Public Authorities Team in cases involving women’s rights.

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