What happens at a public inquiry
Any sudden, unexpected or unexplained death or a death which has occurred in circumstances which may give rise to public concern may be investigated by the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS). Some types of fatal incident, such as a death in a work environment, will be subject to a mandatory inquiry.
If the COPFS decides to carry out an inquiry following a fatality, a Fatal Accident Inquiry (FAI) will be heard before a Sheriff. The procurator fiscal will carry out the investigation and present the evidence at the inquiry.
Unlike criminal and civil proceedings, an FAI is conducted as an "inquisitorial" process which means that it is not intended to find fault or apportion blame, but only to establish the facts. (If there is a criminal element in relation to the death, then the pre-inquiry investigation should have determined this and the case will be subject to criminal proceedings.)
The FAI should establish, as a matter of public record, the following:
- cause of death
- time and place of death
- precautions which may have prevented the death
- any defects in relevant systems which may have contributed to the death
- other relevant information in respect of the cause of death
As a friend or relative, you may be called to give evidence at the Sheriff Court. Other witnesses may include co-workers, employers, doctors, and independent experts. All witnesses will be required to give evidence in relation to the points above.
Witness questioning will be led by the Procurator Fiscal. Lawyers will be present for the deceased's family and representing any organisations or individuals involved in the circumstances which led to the fatality. The lawyers will also be able to ask questions of the witnesses.
In some cases, the media might be present and they might report on the inquiry.
Changes to the law
In 2015 Scottish Parliament passed changes to the laws governing FAIs.
Under the revised Inquiries into Fatal Accidents and Sudden Deaths etc. (Scotland) Bill, FAIs now apply to a broader range of fatal accidents, including, child deaths in secure accommodation and, in some cases, accidents involving Scottish people abroad.
Ministers said the bill would "strengthen FAI legislation and bring it into the 21st century". However, although a number of the changes are considered welcome, they fall some way short of the changes Thompsons Solicitors in Scotland have long called for.
FAIs had previously applied to accidents in the workplace and deaths in police custody – it was hoped the changes would make it easier to call an FAI if it can be asserted that do so is in the public interest.
The changes also created the "family liaison charter" which aims to ensure that grieving families are kept abreast of FAI findings.
FAIs, what should we expect?
In our opinion, based on our experience in assisting the families of victims of fatal accidents:
- Families are left waiting for far too long after the death of their loved one to see anything happen. When things do happen, it does not usually meet up with their needs or demands.
- It is not uncommon for it to take three years or longer before a fatal accident inquiry begins.
- Lessons are not learned and things do not improve because the Sheriff’s determination and recommendations are often ignored.
- Families feel disenfranchised from the whole process as “bit players” without proper funding
- The fact that the inquiry is carried out by a Sheriff, rather than a Judge of the Supreme Court, gives the appearance that workplace deaths are not considered as important as other matters which are considered by Supreme Court judges.
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