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Fatal Accident Inquiries Into 97 Deaths Over Five Years in Scottish Prison Custody: Long Elapsed Times and Recommendations

NCJ Number
Howard Journal of Criminal Justice Volume: 47 Issue: 4 Dated: September 2008 Pages: 343-370
Sheila M. Bird
Date Published
September 2008
28 pages
In a review of 97 deaths over 5 years in Scottish prison custody, this paper examines the elapsed time in attaining findings of fatal accident inquiries and presents recommendations in setting reasonable targets for timely fatal accident inquiries.
In Scotland, it is the procurator fiscal who decides that a fatal accident inquiry be established, the date for which is then advertised in the local press for evidence to be brought forward. Almost always, a fatal accident inquiry is convened for a death in prison custody. Fatal accident inquiries are held in the sheriff court which has jurisdiction over the place of death. Fatal accident inquiries conclude with formal findings or a written determination, which summarizes the issues raised, the evidence heard, and judgment. Scottish Prison Service (SPS) receives a copy of all formal findings and written determinations for deaths in Scottish prison custody. SPS’s legal section was confident that an interval of 38 months from the date of death to a written determination was fairly exceptional. The question is how exceptional was an elapsed time of 38 months? Freedom of Information requests yielded answers for 97 deaths over 5 years in Scottish prison custody. Written determinations were made in 42 out of 97 fatal accident inquiries: waiting for dissemination took more than 90 days or from death to dissemination more than 455 days for nearly one-third (13/42). In summary, the United Kingdom needs to set reasoned targets for timely fatal accident inquiries and for the dissemination of their written determinations. As in England and Wales, Scotland should have an independent commissioner who can quality-assure investigations of deaths in prison custody, compile statistics on inquiries into prisoner deaths, encourage that written determinations be made when warranted on public health or epidemiological grounds, and manage the dissemination of, and action on, sheriffs’ recommendations for the better assurance of prisoners, their families, the public, and parliament. Tables and references