Thursday, 10 December 2015

Changes to the law on Fatal Accident Inquiries in Scotland

Thanks to my local MSP Kenneth Gibson for the following, summarising changes to the law on Fatal Accident Inquiries in Scotland, which were passed in a bill at the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood earlier today.

For those outside of Scotland, we don't have a system of coroners as in other parts of the UK here, so FAIs are an important alternative in certain cases and have been since the 1890s (the majority of sudden deaths are investigated by the procurator fiscal):


New laws to modernise the Fatal Accident Inquiry (FAI) process have been passed by the Scottish Parliament.

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

Discretionary FAIs into the deaths of Scots abroad will also be introduced for the first time.

Other aspects of the incoming laws include:

• Mandatory FAIs for new categories of deaths, including the deaths of children in secure accommodation and deaths under police arrest, regardless of location.

• 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.

• 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.

Following efforts by the SNP Government, the UK Government has agreed, in principle, for mandatory FAIs to be held into the deaths of service personnel in Scotland. FAIs into the death of service personnel in Scotland could not be included in the Bill as it relates to defence, which is reserved to the UK Government.

The Crown Office will also introduce a family liaison charter, to stand alongside the Bill, to keep bereaved families fully informed of the progress of a death investigation and the likelihood of criminal proceedings or a fatal accident inquiry.

Local MSP Kenneth Gibson said:

“This new legislation will strengthen Fatal Accident Inquiry legislation and bring it into the 21st century, ensuring that inquiries are effective, efficient and fair through implementing the recommendations of Lord Cullen. In particular, the introduction of the possibility of an FAI for deaths abroad is a hugely important step.

“I also welcome the UK Government agreement, in principle that the death of service personnel in Scotland, be subject to a mandatory inquiry.

“Requiring participants at FAIs to respond to recommendations made by sheriffs will improve compliancy, accountability and transparency in the process. I have no doubt this will particularly welcomed by residents of Fairlie with regard to the Catherine Bonnar case.”



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.

Any changes to the law around FAIs into the death of service personnel in Scotland will not be part of the Bill, but enacted by a UK Order under section 104 of the Scotland Act 1998.

In the cases of deaths of Scots abroad, the Lord Advocate must still consider that the death abroad has 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.

The Bill introduces the possibility of an FAI into a death abroad, even where the body is not repatriated. This is not the case in the rest of the UK.

(With thanks to Kenneth Gibson MSP)


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