Lawyers and grieving families have branded Scotland’s fatal accident inquiry process unfit for purpose after it emerged more than 140 cases are stuck in the system.
The numbers are so high that, at the present rate of around 40 FAIs being held annually, it would take more than three years to clear the load even if no new cases emerged.
Campaigners say it means the backlog is unlikely ever to be cleared and urged the Lord Advocate to take urgent action to tackle the crisis just weeks after we revealed 14,000 criminal cases were in limbo awaiting prosecutors’ decisions.
A report by the Inspectorate of Prosecution in Scotland showed 143 FAIs have been instructed but not concluded. It revealed a dozen cases had waited more than four years while 45 were over the two-year mark.
The figures heap further pressure on the Crown Office after we revealed last week that 14,000 criminal cases – up 70% in four years – were waiting for a decision on whether to prosecute or not.
Last week, Lord Advocate James Wolffe QC promised to quicken the pace of inquiries adding: “In too many cases, the investigation takes too long. I know the impact this can have on all involved, in particular the bereaved but also the staff who undertake death investigations who have direct contact every day with bereaved relatives at a difficult time.”
However, Patrick McGuire, of Thompsons solicitors, said: “My sombre reflection on the statistics is that they are shocking but not surprising. The FAI system in Scotland is characterised by delay.
“I have campaigned for years for root and branch changes and these latest revelations square entirely with the experience of my clients.
“We must take an entirely fresh approach to FAIs. We must start with a blank sheet of paper and build a system that has the victims and their families at its heart.”
The sister of death-in-police-custody victim Sheku Bayoh criticised the four-year wait her family had endured for any announcement on a FAI.
Kadi Johnson said: “My family and I have never understood why it took so long for a decision to be reached that no police would be prosecuted.
“Now it is four years since my brother died and we are still waiting for news on when the FAI might be held.
“It is so heartbreaking for us that my brother died the way he did. The police walk free and we still have this hanging over us. How can that be justice?”
The father of M9 crash victim John Yuill also called for action, describing the delays as “torture” for families.
Despite the four year passage of time since the death of John, 28, and Lamara Bell, 25, there has been no decision on whether police will face charges and no sign of a fatal accident inquiry.
Gordon Yuill, 53, of Camelon, Falkirk, said: “The figures on the cases outstanding across Scotland is staggering. Surely it’s not acceptable and something needs to change.
“John and Lamara’s case just goes on and on and we have no idea when they will reach any decision. The whole thing just wears you down.
“I have come to some kind of acceptance that it is going to be dragged out for as long as possible.”
Gordon said: “We acknowledge that he (Lord Advocate Wolffe) accepts inquiries are taking too long but this has been a problem for many years now. Our experience of contact with officials is also very sporadic – maybe three times a year – and not every day as the Lord Advocate suggests.”
In her report into FAIs, Chief Inspector of Prosecution Michelle Macleod, who has since been appointed Police Investigations and Review Commissioner, criticised the “disappointing” lack of improvement in the system.
In mandatory FAI cases, such as for deaths in custody or at work, it takes an average of just under two years for the inquiry to begin.
Ms Macleod said: “Failing to deal with FAIs expeditiously not only impacts on nearest relatives, it causes distress and concern for potential witnesses.”
The FAI probe into the deaths of 10 people in the Clutha helicopter crash began in April this year more than five years after the tragedy in November 2013.
By contrast, an FAI into the Ibrox disaster which happened on January 2, 1971, and claimed the lives of 66 people, began just six weeks later on February 15.
The public inquiry into the fire at Grenfell tower in London, which claimed the lives of 72 people, was announced on June 15, 2017, one day after the fire broke out. Public hearings started on the third-month anniversary of the fire on September 14, 2017.
Ian O’Prey, whose son Mark was one of the 10 people killed in the Clutha crash, said: “The wait and the delays we have experienced have long since entered the realms of farce. We are still awaiting the outcome of an FAI six years on.”
Ann Marie Cocozza, co-founder of Family and Friends Affected by Murder and Suicide, said: “This delay in delivering justice is outrageous. Action is needed to speed the whole system up.”
Liam McArthur MSP, Lib Dem justice spokesman, said: “We have an FAI system that needs to be urgently and comprehensively reformed.
“Backlogs and barriers in the system are preventing effective reflection and the implementation of important changes.”
A Crown Office spokesman said: “We are committed to the prompt investigation of deaths but accept that in some cases the time taken to complete a thorough investigation has been too long.
“We recently increased the resource available to the Scottish Fatalities Investigation Unit with a view to reducing the time to complete complex death investigations and improving the provision of information to families.
“In addition, we have revised the way the progress of all death investigations is monitored to ensure they are completed as efficiently as possible. These measures represent a commitment to improve the service.”
Three years after Michael died, the case finally went to court. We need more answers more quickly
The sister of a man electrocuted at work said prosecutors took so long to deal with the case, the family were unable to face a Fatal Accident Inquiry.
Louise Taggart, who now campaigns on the issue of workplace safety, described FAI delays as “wholly unacceptable”.
Her 26-year-old brother, Michael Adamson, was electrocuted at work in Dundee in 2005 after a live cable was wrongly marked as not in use.
It took three years for a criminal case to come to court.
Louise has suggested an initial FAI hearing could be heard soon after a death to give families some information and kick-start the inquiry without full disclosure of evidence which could prejudice any criminal case.
She said: “Finally, after three years, my parents and I sat through a trial which lasted weeks.
“We didn’t even have a full picture of what had happened after that.
“By the end of the case we were drained. I think an FAI by that stage would just have been too much.
“Any lessons which could have been learned should have been learned by that time.”
Louise, of Edinburgh, said: “We have instances of families having to wait four, five or even more years only to find out an FAI isn’t even going to take place.
“These delays are wholly unacceptable.
“Families need more answers more quickly and it needs to be more than just an update as to where we’re at.
“The Crown Office set up a specialist fatalities unit and that is a step forward, but only if it is resourced properly.
“Otherwise they are not even going to be able to catch up with the cases already existing and delays are just going to get worse.”
Louise is now a member of Families Against Corporate Killers and a trustee of Scottish Hazards, a health and safety charity which looks to prevent workplace injuries.
She gave evidence to a Holyrood’s justice committee looking into FAIs in 2015 and told MSPs the process needs speeding up.
She fought back tears as she told committee members about her family’s experience following the death of Michael in 2005.
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