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Public Interest and Private Grief: A Study of Fatal Accident Enquiries in Scotland - Research Findings

DescriptionThis research to inform a review of guidelines for procurators fiscal in fatal accident enquiries.
ISBN0 7480 2945 1
Official Print Publication Date
Website Publication DateDecember 29, 1998
Crime and Criminal Justice Research Findings No. 6 (1995)
Public Interest and Private Grief: A Study of Fatal Accident Inquiries in Scotland


ISBN 0-7480-2945-1Publisher The Scottish OfficePrice £5.00
In Scotland, all sudden, suspicious and unexplained deaths are the subject of inquiry by the procurator fiscal who, in certain circumstances, may hold a public inquiry into the death. Such inquiries are held under the Fatal Accidents and Sudden Deaths Inquiry (Scotland) Act 1976, and are known as 'fatal accident inquiries' (FAIs). The 1976 Act legislates for two types of inquiry: mandatory inquiries must be held for deaths occurring within employment or legal custody, while discretionary inquiries may be held where it appears to be expedient within the public interest to do so. This research was commissioned by Crown Office to inform a review of guidelines for procurators fiscal and was conducted by the Criminological Research Branch of The Scottish Office Central Research Unit.
Main findings
  • Of the 110 FAIs held during 1992 which were examined, 44% were mandatory inquiries. The largest proportion of inquiries were held as a result of work related deaths and road traffic accidents.
  • Most inquiries were started within 9 months of the death, although one in four took place more than a year later. Mandatory inquiries tended to be held more quickly.
  • The procurators fiscal interviewed felt they had a clear understanding of what was required under the 1976 Act for both mandatory and discretionary inquiries and were confident about their use of discretion. Two broad issues of public interest appeared to influence their decisions in discretionary inquiries: public safety and public concern.
  • The wishes of the next of kin were held to be important in deciding whether or not to hold an inquiry, although these were not considered sufficient grounds to hold a FAI in the absence of general public interest, particularly where demands were seen as unreasonable.
  • Only four next of kin who responded to the questionnaire did not want a FAI to be held. The others wanted a FAI for a number of reasons, including a desire to find out 'the truth'; rule out foul play; attribute 'blame' or clear the deceased's name; and prevent further deaths.
  • While generally positive about initial contact with the procurator fiscal, more than half complained about a subsequent lack of information and delays in holding the inquiry
  • Next of kin's experiences of the inquiry itself were mixed. More than half reported dissatisfaction with the way the inquiry was conducted, and three in four said it had not achieved what they hoped it would. However, some next of kin were glad to have had the chance to 'lay a ghost to rest' or to clear the deceased of any blame.
This research was commissioned by Crown Office in order to inform a review of guidelines for procurators fiscal on the operation of fatal accident inquiries. The research had 3 main objectives:
  • to establish the main characteristics of those inquiries held during 1992;
  • to examine the decision-making processes involved in holding a FAI;
  • to examine the experiences and attitudes of next of kin.
FAIs held during 1992
A total of 118 FAIs were held during 1992, continuing a general downward trend since 1989. Case papers from procurator fiscal offices for 110 of these cases were examined to establish the key characteristics of each.
Of those cases examined, 44% were mandatory inquiries and 56% discretionary. The largest number of FAIs conducted by a single office was 14 in Glasgow, although there was no simple relationship between size of office and the number of FAIs dealt with. Factors which influence the number of FAIs held in each area include population size and demographic structure; location of custodial establishments and hospitals; nature of local industry; characteristics of local road networks; and the approach of the local procurator fiscal.
Figure 1 shows that a quarter of the 110 cases studied involved road traffic accidents, while a further quarter consisted of work related fatal accidents. A large proportion of sudden deaths also involved investigation of possible failures in the provision of medical care.
Figure 1
Causes and circumstances of death (n=110)
Figure 1 Causes and circumstances of death (n=110)
Most of the FAIs involved only one deceased, with only 7 cases involving multiple fatalities. The deceased were predominantly male. Most of the inquiries were started within 9 months of the death, although one in four took place more than a year later. Cases involving mandatory inquiries tended to be held more quickly than discretionary inquiries, but both types of inquiry lasted an average of 1.7 days.
The decision making process
The procurator fiscal occupies a central role in relation to FAIs and makes a large number of decisions which affect the progress of each case, although advocates depute, on behalf of the Lord Advocate, make the final decision about whether or not to hold an inquiry. Interviews were conducted with procurators fiscal from 11 of the 49 procurator fiscal offices throughout Scotland and with 2 advocates depute.
The procurators fiscal were in general agreement about the main functions of FAIs. They felt that, primarily, FAIs should establish the cause of death and consider whether steps might be taken to prevent similar accidents occurring in the future; and, secondly, FAIs should provide a 'full public ventilation of the facts'.
The procurators fiscal claimed to have a clear understanding of the terms of the 1976 Act about when to hold a mandatory inquiry, although slight differences in opinion did emerge in relation to some deaths in employment.
The 1976 Act provides much less well defined criteria for holding discretionary inquiries, allowing greater scope for discretion on the part of the procurator fiscal. Nevertheless, the interviewees felt confident about their ability to identify such cases, although they found it difficult to present these as a clear set of criteria. Two broad definitions of 'public interest' emerged which appeared to influence the decision making process:
  • the first involved public safety (i.e. the need to prevent a repetition of the accident);
  • and the second was public concern (i.e. the need to address public speculation about the cause of death).
The wishes of the next of kin were generally held to be an important factor in deciding whether or not to recommend a discretionary inquiry. However, it was also emphasised that the wishes of the family in themselves were not sufficient grounds for an inquiry in the absence of any substantive public interest.
A number of interviewees felt that some next of kin could be unreasonable in their demands and expressed a degree of frustration about cases in which there was what they saw as a lust for revenge. They also acknowledged the difficulty of dealing with next of kin without receiving any relevant training.
The procurators fiscal were generally content with the way their recommendations were handled by advocates depute when making their final decision. The advocates depute agreed that it was unusual for them to disagree with a procurator fiscal's recommendation.
Views of the next of kin
Self-completion questionnaires were completed by next of kin in 32 of the FAIs held during 1992, an face-to-face or telephone interviews were subsequently conducted with 27 individuals.
28 of the 32 questionnaire respondents had wanted a FAI to be held. Their reasons varied, including the need to find out 'the truth' of what happened; rule out the possibility of foul play or negligence; attribute 'blame' to someone for the death or 'clear the name' of the deceased; and prevent other similar deaths. In the 4 cases in which an inquiry was not wanted (all mandatory inquiries), it was felt that the cause and circumstances of the death were already clear.
Two thirds of questionnaire respondents felt the procurator fiscal had taken seriously their views about whether an inquiry should be held. Of those who did not, however, many felt they were seen as peripheral to the proceedings and to the decision making process. Occasionally, next of kin complained that procurators fiscal had not listened to them, particularly in cases in which the next of kin had pressed for an inquiry to be held.
Next of kin were generally positive about initial contact with the procurator fiscal. Nevertheless, more than half of the questionnaire respondents felt they were 'not very' or 'not at all well' kept informed subsequently of the progress of the case. Most comments about lack of information related to the delay between the death and being informed of when the inquiry would take place. Being told of the decision to finally hold an inquiry could also be stressful in itself: several respondents said they had been distressed at the thought of having to relive the experience again, while others were upset by the shock of having a uniformed police officer serve them with the citation at home.
Comments about the experience of the inquiry itself were mixed. While most next of kin said it was easy to follow what was going on (apart from complex legal and medical jargon), over half said they were 'not very' or 'not at all' satisfied with the way the inquiry was conducted. Some questioned the need for them to be called to give routine evidence, and others were critical of the selection of other witnesses who they felt had less vital information than others not called.
Next of kin were often unprepared for and intimidated by the strangeness and formality of the court environment. While some were appreciative of small gestures by court staff to make them feel more involved in the proceedings, others felt unacknowledged and unable to contribute in the way they hoped. There were also complaints that the proceedings had been, in some cases, insensitive to the next of kin - for example, by failing to warn next of kin about the production of distressing photographs or other evidence relating to the death.
Finally, some next of kin appeared to have mis-understood the inquisitorial nature of the proceedings, and the inability of the sheriff to apportion blame. In all, three quarters of questionnaire respondents felt the inquiry had not achieved what they had hoped it would. Nevertheless, some positive features did emerge. Some next of kin were glad to have had a chance to hear what happened and to have 'laid a ghost to rest', while others were glad the deceased was absolved of any blame.
Copies of "Public Interests and Private Grief: A Study of Fatal Accident Inquiries in Scotland", the research report summarised in this Research Findings, are available priced £5.00.
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