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Modernising fatal accident inquiries

Published: 12 Jun 2017 00:01
Part of:
Law and order

Deaths of military personnel in Scotland now subject to mandatory inquiry.

Major changes which modernise the way fatal accident inquiries are carried out will come into force this week.

Changes introduced by the Inquiries into Fatal Accidents and Sudden Deaths etc (Scotland) Act 2016 will ensure a system which is effective, efficient and fair.

The power to hold FAIs into the deaths of Scots abroad will be introduced for the first time.

An FAI will now have to be carried out for military service deaths in Scotland, as well as new categories of deaths including children in secure accommodation and deaths under police arrest, regardless of location.

Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs, Annabelle Ewing, said:

“We are bringing the law on FAIs into the 21st century, taking some important steps to broaden the scope of inquiries, including to deaths abroad and the deaths of military personnel on duty in Scotland.

“FAIs are an essential part of our justice system and we want to make sure they are as effective and fair as possible. Sheriffs will now play a more active role in the process, and the new Act requires people and organisations to respond to recommendations made by sheriffs which will improve compliancy and accountability.”

Liam Murphy, Procurator Fiscal for Specialist Casework, said:

“We welcome the introduction of new legislation to reform and modernise the system of Fatal Accident Inquiries. We fully understand how difficult the often complex process can be for bereaved families and our own Family Liaison Charter helps ensure that families are kept fully informed about the progress of an investigation.”

Background

The changes will come into force on Thursday 15 June.

Other aspects of the incoming laws includes:

  • The power to reopen an FAI if new evidence arises, and to hold a fresh FAI if the new evidence is substantial enough.
  • Flexibility on the locations and accommodation for FAIs.
  • Single FAIs into linked events in different sheriffdoms
  • A requirement on individuals or organisations to explain how they have implemented recommendations placed on them by a sheriff after an FAI, or why none have been implemented.

FAIs into the death of service personnel on duty in Scotland could not be included in the Bill for the Act as it relates to defence, which is reserved to the UK Government. This change was brought in under an order under section 104 of the Scotland Act 1998.  FAIs into the death of service personnel on duty abroad were already possible under previous legislation.

Around 11,000 deaths are reported to the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) each year, and an average of 50 – 60 of these result in an FAI being held. In around a third of those inquiries, the sheriff recommends precautions which could prevent deaths in similar circumstances in the future.

A review of Fatal Accident Inquiry legislation was carried out by Lord Cullen in 2009. Lord Cullen made 36 recommendations for review of the system. Some of the recommendations were addressed to the COPFS and have already been implemented.

The Bill ensures that FAIs remain as inquisitorial fact-finding hearings which do not apportion blame or guilt in a criminal or civil sense. FAIs are held in the public interest to establish the circumstances of sudden, suspicious or unexplained death which have caused serious public concern. The sheriff considers what steps (if any) might be taken to prevent other deaths in similar circumstances.

The Act introduces the possibility of an FAI into a death of a civilian abroad, even where the body is not repatriated. This is not the case in the rest of the UK where the body is not be repatriated. The Lord Advocate must still consider that circumstances of the death abroad have not been sufficiently established in any investigation already carried out and there must be a real prospect that the full circumstances would be established at an inquiry in Scotland.