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Inquiries into Fatal Accidents and Sudden Deaths etc (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 24th September 2015.

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Photo of Willie Coffey Willie Coffey Scottish National Party

I am pleased to participate in the stage 1 debate on modernising the fatal accident inquiry legislation.

My experience of the system is in the context of the death of my constituent Alison Hume, who, as members might recall, died in the Galston mineshaft accident in 2008. The subsequent journey that her family has made—it is probably better to say “endured”—through the fatal accident inquiry process and the subsequent fire service inquiry, has not been a happy one. The reasonable expectation that an FAI and a fire service inquiry would deliver justice and much-needed closure has not been met.

It is in the light of that experience that I will consider the bill and offer comments that I hope will take us further along the road to justice. First, though, I recognise the efforts of the Scottish Government and members of the Justice Committee to begin to modernise the fatal accident inquiry process.

There will be a number of positive changes, many of which emanate from Lord Cullen’s review in 2009. The extension of categories of death that require an FAI is welcome, as is the discretion to hold FAls for residents of Scotland who die abroad. The latter extension will be a welcome change for families who have to suffer the loss of a loved one abroad. I note the committee’s plea for discretion to hold an FAI even if repatriation of the body is not possible.

It was also pleasing to hear the minister say that the Scottish Government will consider including deaths of service personnel in Scotland in the new legislation. That is welcome. It is right to seek such extensions and I am confident that they will be supported by the public.

The new obligation to respond to a sheriff’s recommendations is also welcome. It is a long-overdue step in improving the system. That there was no previous obligation to respond to FAI recommendations was a severe weakness, the unintended consequence of which was that serious criticism of individuals was largely ignored.

I note the proposal to permit FAls to be reopened if new evidence emerges that suggests that further consideration is required. That approach will be welcomed by many people as a further modernisation of our system to make it better serve the public interest.

I turn to Alison Hume’s family’s experience of the current FAI system, to consider whether the proposals will address their concerns. What we have to understand is that a family like Alison Hume’s are on a journey, and their destination is justice and final closure, whereas the end point in the FAI process is to establish the facts and cause of death and to identify defects in the system and reasonable precautions that might have been taken. The purpose is not to apportion blame or find fault.

As far as I can see, no powers are proposed that would ensure that recommendations are implemented or even require a response to severe criticism of individuals whom an inquiry has found wanting. Lord Cullen himself commented:

“an investigation of the circumstances of a death in an FAI may disclose grounds for criticism, from which a basis for alleging fault may be inferred.”

Although the new proposals will at least require responses to inquiry recommendations, the onward journey to securing justice still lies outwith the process. I would like to see a stronger approach taken to ensure that a sheriff’s recommendations are carried out and that any criticisms that a sheriff makes are responded to and dealt with.