In Scotland, all sudden, unexpected and unexplained deaths must be reported to the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS). In certain circumstances an investigation by the court will then be ordered into why the accident happened. The court will make findings and possibly recommendations to try to prevent such accidents taking place in the future. This is known as a Fatal Accident Inquiry (FAI). FAIs are mandatory where a person has died in the course of their employment, or whilst in lawful custody or secure accommodation. Mandatory FAIs are also required for military deaths in Scotland.

There have been concerns raised around the delays between the accident itself and the FAI taking place. In some cases, it can take years. A recent example is the FAI following the Clutha helicopter crash in 2013 which only commenced this year. Such delays can, understandably, cause added distress to those involved.

What can cause the delays? The sheer volume of deaths reported to the COPFS each year is one factor. The COPFS has a specialist department dealing with FAIs only and this can be restrictive. They often need to await the conclusion of extensive investigations involving different bodies such as the police or the Health and Safety Executive before an FAI can commence. In many cases, particular expert evidence is needed for the court to tackle complex issues, all of which can contribute to a delay in the hearing coming to court.

In August 2019, the Scottish Government issued their annual Report which stated 32 FAIs ended during the year April 2018 to March 2019. Whilst this number, on the face of it, doesn't seem high, there have been specific attempts to tackle the backlog of FAIs by increasing funding and resources. In order to tackle issues involving the lack of court time or facilities to conduct the hearings, some hearings are now taking place out with court buildings such as in conference suites and local authority buildings. For example, the Clutha Inquiry took place at Hampden Park, Glasgow.

The Lord Advocate (the senior Scottish law officers) is confident that by providing additional support to the COPFS, FAIs can be dealt with more efficiently, and delay times reduced. Any efforts to speed up the procedure must be balanced against achieving the fundamental objective of an FAI which is to learn lessons and provide much-needed answers for those involved - a process that requires all parties to have the chance to fully explore the accident circumstances.

Now that there are steps being taken to address the issues, we hope that delays such as seen in the Clutha investigation will be avoided.


Emma Dyson