Dani Garavelli: Delays leave bereaved in limbo

Lord Cullen of Whitekirk appears before the Justice Committee to give evidence on the new bill last week. Picture: Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament
Lord Cullen of Whitekirk appears before the Justice Committee to give evidence on the new bill last week. Picture: Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament
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AS A cub reporter in England there were certain unpalatable tasks you had to carry out, partly because they were deemed essential for your training, but mostly because it saved other people the trouble. For instance, at my first evening newspaper, you were expected to take a turn at each of the district offices in stultifying, if pretty towns, where you would have to scrape together a page of local “news”: a hotchpotch of diamond weddings, charity events and planning disputes.

Another duty palmed off on trainees was covering the Coroner’s Court; this involved sitting through inquest after inquest, hoping that one of the personal tragedies playing out before you would have enough wider significance to make it into the paper. Observing the impact of sudden death at close quarters could be distressing and, for a while, I used to dream the canal I lived beside was awash with bloated corpses. But it could also be a positive experience; though it was painful for the bereaved to hear details of their relatives’ deaths, it allowed them to move on from the limbo of not knowing. After months of torturing themselves with the possibilities, they were finally able to get a sense of what really happened.

There are few measures aimed at speeding up the process

Of course, there were flaws in the system; sometimes it took too long to hear the case. Or officials failed to communicate properly with the relatives of the deceased. Or the answers the family were given weren’t the ones they wanted to hear. But the inquests did provide a forum in which the circumstances could be properly explored, misjudgments highlighted and – if appropriate – recommendations made. More importantly, they provided a degree of closure.

In Scotland, the way sudden deaths are dealt with is quite different: instead of inquests, we have fatal accident inquiries (FAIs), but the circumstances in which they take place are much more limited. Where in England inquests must be held whenever a death is violent and unnatural, sudden and of unknown cause or occurs in prison or police custody, in Scotland, FAIs are mandatory only when the death occurs in work or jail. Otherwise, whether or not an FAI is held is at the discretion of the Lord Advocate.

This may not seem like a huge issue until you look at the statistics. In England, in 2004, there were 225,000 sudden deaths and 28,300 inquests (or around 12 per cent); in Scotland, there are an average of 14,000 sudden deaths a year and around 60 FAIs (or around 0.4 per cent). Moreover, the number of FAIs in Scotland has more than halved since the 1990s. Some of this may be explained by better health and safety procedures, but it also suggests a desire to keep numbers down.

The timescale for holding FAIs has also lengthened. When Lord Cullen conducted his review in 2009, one sheriff told him that in the 1950s FAIs were held within seven weeks of the death. Now a four-year wait is not uncommon. The delays are exacerbated in cases where there are criminal proceedings as, in Scotland, these have to be heard before an FAI can begin.

So what does this mean for people who are already traumatised? Well, Louise Taggart had to wait until the end of a three-and-a-half week trial to be told there would be no FAI into the death of her brother, Michael Adamson, a 26-year-old electrician who died after a live wire was wrongly marked “not in use”.

The trial itself resulted in the company he worked for being fined, while three individuals were found to have no case to answer. But the fact it took place at all meant there was, at least, an exploration of what happened in open court. In the event of a guilty plea, this would not necessarily have been so.

Then there is Julie Love. She received no support when her son Colin, 23, drowned while swimming in a danger spot on holiday in Venezuela six years ago. Had he been living in England, there would have been an inquest, but in Scotland there is currently no provision for FAIs into deaths abroad.

The reason Taggart and Love appeared before the justice committee last week is that the Scottish Government is finally addressing criticisms with the Inquiries into Fatal Accidents and Sudden Deaths etc (Scotland) Bill. If passed, it will enact many of the recommendations in Lord Cullen’s review, extending mandatory FAIs to deaths in police custody and care, including children and those detained under the Mental Health Act, and allowing for FAIs for Scots who die abroad.

Calls for the law to be changed so FAIs could be held before criminal proceedings were rejected, but the bill does allow for preliminary hearings. It also empowers sheriffs to follow up on any recommendations they have made. But there are few measures aimed at speeding up the process and already there have been rumblings about what this will cost.

Of course, resources are tight, but the importance of getting this right should not be underestimated. Last year, the Royal College of Pathologists’ president Archie Prentice claimed that if inquests had been held into more of the deaths at Stafford Hospital, its problems would have been identified earlier. In England, changes proposed in the wake of the Harold Shipman case got lost in funding rows.

Inquests/FAIs are not only about establishing what has happened, they have the potential to expose malpractice. Yet it seems that, for years, they have been the Cinderella of the Scottish justice system. This is not acceptable and resources must be found to rectify the situation. Those who have lost relatives in tragic circumstances have enough to contend with without having to fight the authorities to get the answers they deserve. «