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Our role in investigating deaths

The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is having a significant impact on the Scottish criminal justice system and the invesitgation of deaths. Visit the Coronavirus (COVID-19): information for bereaved families page for further information. 

Information is available for nearest bereaved relatives in our document The role of the Procurator Fiscal in the investigation of deaths

Procurators Fiscal are qualified lawyers who are employed by COPFS and who act on the instructions of the Lord Advocate. The Lord Advocate has responsibility in Scotland to investigate any death which requires further explanation. In other parts of the United Kingdom, the Coroner may investigate such deaths.

Within COPFS, the Scottish Fatalities Investigation Unit (SFIU) is a specialist unit responsible for investigating all sudden, suspicious, accidental and unexplained deaths. There is a designated SFIU team based across each area of the country, in the North (SFIU North), East (SFIU East) and West (SFIU West).

When a person dies in Scotland, they cannot be buried or cremated until a medical certificate giving the cause of death has been issued. This certificate must be completed by a doctor, and must show the time, place and cause of death. Most sudden and unexplained deaths are reported to the Procurator Fiscal because a doctor is unable to confirm the cause of the death and is therefore unable to issue a death certificate.

Once a death has been reported to the Procurator Fiscal, the Procurator Fiscal has legal responsibility for the deceased's body, usually until a death certificate is written by a doctor and given to the nearest relative.
All deaths where the circumstances are thought to be suspicious must be reported to the Procurator Fiscal. The Procurator Fiscal will instruct the Police to investigate the circumstances and consider whether criminal charges should be brought which may lead to a prosecution.
A Fatal Accident Inquiry is a type of court hearing which publically inquires into the circumstances of a death. It will be presided over by a Sheriff and will normally be held in the Sheriff Court. If the death has happened as a result of an accident while at work or if the death happened while in legal custody, for example in prison or police custody, a Fatal Accident Inquiry will normally be held. FAIs can be held in other circumstances if it is thought by COPFS to be in the public interest to do so.

For further information and on-line leaflets please visit our Information following a death page.

Following any sudden death in Scotland, an inquiry is launched to establish the cause of death and to formally identify the deceased. 

This process involves Police Scotland, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, and a pathologist who will conduct any post-mortem.

When incidents involving mass or multiple fatalities occur, many factors have to be taken into consideration, including the potential for criminal investigation, the scale of the incident and the potential difficulty in accessing the site. It is vital that the process of identification is carried out thoroughly to avoid mistaken identification and it can therefore take some time before there is the certainty required to formally identify the deceased. 

We understand the anxiety experienced by relatives waiting for news, and the need to provide them with timeous and accurate information as quickly as possible.  Specialist police and forensics experts often work round the clock to achieve identification, and dedicated Family Liaison Officers will provide families with information as quickly as possible. 

Prior to formal identification but at a stage where there is substantial information to suggest a person is highly likely to have been involved then contact via Family Liaison Officers will take place. Should the families wish, Police Scotland can assist in issuing statements on their behalf at this time.

The Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) process used in Scotland has been developed on the basis of lessons learnt from incidents around the world including plane crashes, terrorist incidents and natural disasters. Internationally recognised standards of identification, known as the INTERPOL Disaster Victim Identification Standards, are used to identify human remains.

These include recognised scientific methods to help identifying victims such as comparing dental records, fingerprints and DNA, especially when visual identification is not possible. This avoids misidentification, which could cause additional distress to victims’ families.

In an incident, including mass or multiple fatalities, there can also be significant work involved in establishing a reliable list of the missing as the Police Service can receive thousands of calls in relation to people who are feared missing. Families or friends of those reported missing are approached as soon as possible to provide information that will help to identify their loved ones.

The deceased will be treated with respect and dignity throughout the process, and relatives waiting for formal identification will be kept fully informed by dedicated Family Liaison Officers who will provide them with as much information as possible.



Q. Why have I been contacted by the procurator fiscal about the death of my relative?

A. Most sudden and unexplained deaths are reported to the fiscal because a doctor is unsure of the exact cause of death and so cannot issue a death certificate. This includes any death that the doctor considers unexpected or clinically unexplained after taking account of previous or recent medical history. Early enquiries by specialist staff at the COPFS Scottish Fatalities Investigation Unit (SFIU) usually establish that death was due to natural causes. Fiscals also investigate suspicious deaths. In these less common cases staff will first tell the police to investigate the suspicious circumstances and then decide if there should be a criminal prosecution. The COPFS Victim Information and Advice service may be able to give help and support to bereaved relatives.

Q. What is a fatal accident inquiry?

A. A fatal accident inquiry, or FAI, is a type of court hearing. A FAI must take place when someone dies in custody in prison or a police station or a death is caused by an accident at work. FAIs can be held in other circumstances if it is thought to be in the public interest. The aim is to prevent future deaths or injuries.

Q. Why have I been asked to go to the mortuary to see my relative’s body?

A. Relatives are sometimes asked to identify the deceased before a post-mortem examination is carried out. This can be upsetting but it is a necessary part of the investigation of the death. Everything is done to help relatives through this process. The COPFS Victim Information and Advice service may be able to give help and support.

Q. Why is a post-mortem being held?

A. Post-mortem examinations are not necessary if a doctor can certify the cause of a death. But sometimes they must be carried out to help establish the cause of a sudden, unexplained or suspicious death. Post-mortem examinations are more likely in certain circumstances, such as the sudden or unexplained death of a child. The permission of the nearest relatives is not needed to carry out an examination. So far as possible, cultural and religious traditions and sensitivities are respected. The COPFS Victim Information and Advice service may be able to give help and support.

Q. Why has my relative’s post mortem report been delayed because of toxicology?

A. Regrettably, COPFS has previously experienced delays in the provision of toxicology analysis by our supplier in relation to some death investigations. Whilst COPFS and our partner agencies have successfully undertaken significant work to eliminate the backlog of toxicology reports, as a consequence and due to an increase in the number of deaths reported to COPFS, COPFS is currently receiving a considerable number of final post mortem reports. Each report then requires to be carefully considered before we can update the nearest relative.

COPFS is acutely conscious of the impact the delay in confirming the final cause of death can have upon bereaved families and we will be in contact with families who are affected by this issue.Should you have any additional concerns or questions please do not hesitate to contact us.

Q. Is that the same as a hospital post-mortem?

A. No, hospital post-mortem examinations are carried out for medical purposes, for example, to help with medical training or for research. Unlike post-mortem examinations ordered by the procurator fiscal, the permission of the nearest relatives is needed for hospital post-mortem examinations.

Q. I have been told that small tissue and blood samples will have to be taken from my relative’s body – why is this necessary?

A. Sometimes blood and tissue samples are taken for more detailed examination during an investigation. This scientific analysis can take several weeks. Samples are disposed of sensitively.

Q. I have been told that an organ has been removed from my relative’s body – why is this necessary?

A. In a very small number of cases, it is necessary to remove an organ so that more detailed examination can take place. This examination may take several weeks. The procurator fiscal will contact you to explain the options open to you. If an organ has been retained, you will be asked to decide how you want the organ to be treated when the tests are completed.

Q. My relative wanted her organs donated – will this be possible?

A. Every effort will be made to respect her wishes, though it may not be possible if she died in suspicious circumstances.

Q. When can I get the death certificate?

A. If a post-mortem examination is held, the death certificate will be issued by the pathologist. The funeral can take place after the death certificate is issued. A copy of the post-mortem examination report, which usually gives the cause of death, can also be requested.

Q. Can I check a cause of death?

A. The cause of death is given on the medical certificate, which is completed by a doctor and taken to the Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages. Sometimes, the medical certificate will be completed only after any investigations or proceedings have taken place.

Q. Will a coroner investigate the sudden and unexplained death of my relative?

A. The coroner system operates in England and Wales rather than Scotland. The only circumstances in which a coroner may become involved is where the deceased was ordinarily resident in England and his/her body is sent back to England for burial or cremation. In these circumstance the receiving coroner will have jurisdiction due to the presence of a body within their geographical area, and will be required to investigate the death. Where the death has resulted from an accident in Scotland which is being investigated by the Procurator Fiscal, the coroner will ask the Fiscal for information, and in the majority of cases await the outcome of the Fiscals investigations.