What to do after a death in Scotland: ... practical advice for times of bereavement - 8th Edition

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4. THE PROCURATOR FISCAL

The role of the Procurator Fiscal

The Procurator Fiscal has a duty to investigate all sudden, suspicious, accidental, unexpected and unexplained deaths and any death occurring in circumstances that give rise to serious public concern. Where a death is reported, the Procurator Fiscal will investigate the circumstances of the death, attempt to find out the cause of the death and consider whether criminal proceedings or a Fatal Accident Inquiry is appropriate. In the majority of cases reported to the Procurator Fiscal, early enquiries rule out suspicious circumstances and establish that the death was due to natural causes.

Deaths are usually brought to the attention of the Procurator Fiscal through reports from the police, the Registrar, GPs or hospital doctors. However, anyone who has concerns about the circumstances of a death can report it to the Procurator Fiscal. There are certain categories of deaths that must be enquired into, but the Procurator Fiscal may enquire into any death brought to his notice.

The first task for the Procurator Fiscal is to find out the cause of death. The police will provide full information about the circumstances of the death. They will normally interview relatives and others who can provide information about the circumstances of the death.

Post mortem examination

In some cases reported to the Procurator Fiscal it will be necessary to instruct a post mortem examination, for example, where no doctor is able to issue a death certificate or where criminal proceedings or a Fatal Accident Inquiry may be considered. The consent of the next of kin is not required where the post mortem examination is instructed by the Procurator Fiscal.

The examination will be carried out as soon as possible, normally within a day or two of the death. If the sudden or unexplained death is that of an infant or child, the Procurator Fiscal may be more likely to ask for a post mortem examination. If there are any cultural, religious or other objections to a post mortem examination it is important to tell the Procurator Fiscal as soon as possible. There may be legal reasons why a post mortem is unavoidable, but where possible the wishes of the next of kin will be respected.

Further investigation

In most cases, the Procurator Fiscal's investigations are complete when the death certificate has been issued. In some cases the Procurator Fiscal will need to carry out further investigations into the death. The time necessary to investigate the death can vary considerably depending on the circumstances.

Victim Information and Advice

The Victim Information and Advice Service is a division of the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service. One of its aims is to help bereaved relatives where the Procurator Fiscal is involved in investigating a death. The Victim Liaison Officer may contact you if there is to be a meeting with the Procurator Fiscal, or if criminal proceedings, or a Fatal Accident Inquiry are being considered. They will assist you in dealing with the Procurator Fiscal by passing on any questions you may have. If you wish, they can also come with you to support you at any meeting with the Procurator Fiscal.

Information for relatives

If a post mortem examination takes place on the instructions of the Procurator Fiscal, the Fiscal's staff should inform you as soon as they can whether any organs have been retained from the examination for the Fiscal's purposes. Once the Fiscal is satisfied that those purposes are complete, you will be asked what you wish to happen to this material. After new human tissue legislation comes into effect on 1 September 2006, you will have the additional option of authorising the keeping of that material for purposes such as research, education or training.

Tracing relatives

If someone dies and there are apparently no blood relatives, local Procurators Fiscal will make preliminary enquiries on behalf of the Queen's and Lord Treasurer's Remembrancer ( QLTR). The QLTR deals with the property of people who die when there are no traceable relatives.

The Procurator Fiscal - often in cooperation with the Local Authority's Legal or Housing or Social Work Department - may therefore visit the house and speak to neighbours. The Procurator Fiscal will collect relevant papers and documents and forward them to the QLTR Department with a form giving as much background information about the dead person as possible.

Sometimes someone will report a death to the QLTR Department directly. In those cases the QLTR Department will decide whether to administer the estate or to ask the local Procurator Fiscal to investigate in more detail.