| 29 Nov 2023

What first drew you to working on fatal accident inquiries?

The interest lay in wanting to study Forensic Medicine aged eight when I was influenced first by TV programmes The Expert which was about a forensic pathologist followed by Sutherland’s Law which was about a Procurator Fiscal in Oban.

As I did not like physics, and was not going to study medicine, I studied law so that I could study forensic medicine. I joined the Procurator Fiscal’s Office as I saw that they were responsible for prosecution and investigations into deaths, so that I would be able to experience the practice of forensic medicine first hand. Working in the deaths unit exposed me to investigations into deaths, a number of which were medical fatalities which I specialised in, leading the Fatal Accident Inquiries in Scotland.

What have been the biggest changes in this area of law over the past few years?

Covid-19 had an enormous impact on the country. Many additional deaths arose and a number of them are currently under investigation in the Covid-19 inquiry into the deaths in care homes. I understand that it is taking significant resources to field that inquiry. It is important to learn why such deaths arose and to avoid repeating these circumstances. The investigation is being conducted as a public inquiry rather than a Fatal Accident Inquiry (and the book explains the difference) as under the Inquiries Act 2005, the scope of the Inquiry can be wider.

The Covid-19 pandemic also meant that the justice system stalled until such time as there was the opportunity to set up remote courts. Some Fatal Accident Inquiries were conducted remotely and that remains an opportunity, though seems not be utilised as much as it might to tackle what is a backlog.

Another change which cannot be ignored is that the subject matter of such deaths is becoming increasingly complex. This affects the time taken to investigate length of the circumstances of the death as well as the range and number of witnesses that are involved. Examples of complexity can be seen in Fatal Accident inquiries into helicopter crash at Sumburgh airport.

What developments do you foresee happening in this areas of law over the next few years?

Fatal Accident Inquiries were always held into all manner of deaths, however, the sustained delay in these being held has continued to be subject to public criticism. Wishful thinking would suggest that the Scottish Government might instruct a review into the operation of the Inquiries into Fatal Accidents and Sudden Deaths (Scotland) etc. Act 2016 (2016 Act) to ascertain how such delays may be eliminated. If Fatal Accident Inquiries are not held timeously, then lessons cannot be learnt, which increases the risk of the circumstances repeating.

Were such a review to be undertaken, it could assess how effective the Fatal Accident Inquiry system is in bringing about change. Under the 2016 Act there is power to make recommendations where the sheriff feels that there are circumstances that merit them. There is no judicial management oversight or follow up on the responses provided to such recommendations or indeed any requirement to implement such recommendations. That review could give rise to seeing how there could be more active follow up to bring about effective change respecting societal interest.

What was the most surprising aspect of undertaking the research on Fatal Accident Inquires?

It was about finding sources and the content of such sources. As a lawyer I was familiar with instructing and undertaking investigating deaths and conducting Fatal Accident Inquiries – but I had not thought about the historical aspects and where the records of such deaths were located. After some investigation, they are held in the National Records of Scotland as national archives but under the auspices of the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service.

There, one can find so many stories about deaths in the past such as a footballer in a professional game, poisoning from consuming industrial alcohol illegally obtained at a New Year party, train crashes, a department store fire, a gas explosion at a shopping centre, a German prisoner of war post-war and well known Fatal Accident Inquiries such as Lockerbie and Dunblane. These are part of our history – and so interesting to read about now.

Overall, it is so important to remember those who have died – and the bereaved families. Each of these deaths involved people and the subject of Fatal Accident Inquiries should not be forgotten. Moving on to prevent occurrences such as the Ibrox disaster allows society to learn and avoids disasters recurring – there with enactment of legislation to require safety at all sports stadiums affected not just Scotland but the UK too.

The impact of an effective Fatal Accident Inquiry system is so important for us all.

What's the most important lesson you have learned whilst working in this field?

Nothing stands still for long. In the week leading up to me submitting the first draft of the book there was a significant development (government announcement, new case, or the like) that required a re-write every single day. It does mean that there’s always something new to learn.

Gillian Mawdsley is a Scottish practising solicitor, principally focused now in lecturing and teaching roles in Law at the Open University, Edinburgh University and Strathclyde University. Her professional background was gained mainly in the public sector, including policy work at Scottish Government and the Law Society of Scotland.

Gillian worked within the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (as a Procurator Fiscal Depute for nearly 20 years.) During that time, she worked in the Deaths Unit, investigating a significant number of homicides and sudden deaths and undertook a number of FAIs, specialising in complex medical deaths. Gillian has longstanding interests in law and medicine. She is committed to the importance of improving awareness and understanding of the law for the public and practitioners.