Holyrood FAI proposals ‘appropriate’, judge rules

SCOTLAND’S most senior judge has dismissed fears that creating specialist sheriffs for fatal ­accident inquiries (FAIs) could lead to the system becoming more centralised.

Lord Gill is set to tell Holyrood's Justice Committee what he thinks of proposals to reform FAIs. Picture: Ian Georgeson

Lord Gill, the Lord President and Lord Justice General, made his view known when he responded to concerns raised by sheriffs about the impact of Scottish Government reform of the procedures for FAIs.

The Sheriffs’ Association, the body which looks after the interests of sheriffs, has suggested that a move to having specialist sheriffs could lead to them dealing with FAIs at just a handful of locations.

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In a submission to MSPs who are considering the changes in the Fatal Accidents and Sudden Deaths etc (Scotland) Bill, the Association said “it seems to be envisaged that sheriff principals will no longer conduct ­inquiries”.

The association warned: “The designation of specialist sheriffs is likely to lead to the centralisation of FAIs and the grouping of specialist sheriffs in only a small number of courts or specialist FAI centres. We would strongly oppose such a move.’’

At a meeting of Holyrood’s justice committee, Sheriff Gordon Liddle, vice-president of the Sheriffs’ Association, told MSPs: “If you were to make a number of specialist sheriffs in Scotland… it would probably lead to something that is undesirable and that is [a] specialist centre.”

This, he said, would “take away from the local aspect of ­inquiries”.

But Lord Gill told the committee: “I don’t think that is going to happen.”

He suggested that the change could lead to specialist sheriffs presiding over inquiries across the country. He said: “I don’t think there is any immediate prospect of there being a centralised FAI system with a national FAI venue. That’s not in contemplation at the moment and I don’t think it’s on the far horizon. I don’t see any need for it either.”

He added: “Sheriffs now have the flexibility to sit wherever they are sent. So if there were to emerge a small group of specialist FAI sheriffs, they could be deployed anywhere in Scotland as the need arose. That, I think, is a much better solution than having a centralised venue.”

Lord Gill’s remarks were in line with a submission he made to MSPs ahead of yesterday’s meeting.

In his submission, Lord Gill said: ‘’I consider that the provisions of this bill will update the fatal accident inquiry process in a way that is appropriate for a modern legal system.’’

The Scottish Government has brought forward the bill in a bid to implement most of the recommendations made in a 2009 review of the system by retired senior judge Lord Cullen. The bill seeks to make the system more efficient and would extend the categories of death for which it is mandatory to hold an FAI. It would also allow for FAIs to be held into the deaths of Scots abroad where the body is ­repatriated.

Setting up FAIs for those who die abroad has been campaigned for by Julie Love, who established the charity Death Abroad You’re Not Alone after her son Colin, 23, died in a swimming ­accident in Venezuela in 2009.

In a written submission, she said: “My son had died thousands of miles away in another country and there was no assistance whatsoever from any governing body in the UK.

“Appalled at this and the total lack of respect towards my deceased son, I vowed to ensure no other family were treated like ours.”

Previously, the committee has heard from campaigners who are seeking to ensure that inquiries are held more quickly in an attempt to ease the pain of relatives.

At previous evidence sessions, the committee has heard of families having to wait up to seven years before learning an FAI would not be held.