Proof of the deficiencies in the system of fatal accident inquiries (FAIs) has been gathering for some time now, but at last there appears to be hope of some progress.
It has emerged that the Scottish Government's consultation on proposals to reform the system includes the idea of setting up three special FAI centres: one in the east, one in the west and one in the north.
The aim of such centres would be to create an atmosphere that is more relaxed and sympathetic to bereaved families than the one in sheriff courts, where FAIs are usually held. The fact that FAIs tend to be held in courtrooms has been criticised by some relatives, including Jim Bollan. Mr Bollan, whose daughter Angela died in Cornton Vale prison while on remand for a shoplifting charge, says a less formal environment would be more likely to be put relatives at ease.
However, there are other reasons to support the idea of dedicated FAI centres and the most important of them is the likelihood that they would help to speed the process up. A persistent criticism of the system is that it takes far too long, with the personal injury specialists Thompsons Solicitors revealing last year that FAIs following deaths at work take an average of 30 months to set up. In one-third of cases, it is even worse, with FAIs taking three or four years to get going. One particularly bad example is the case of the Flying Phantom tugboat in which the families of the three men who died on the Clyde in 2007 are still waiting nearly seven years later for a decision on whether an FAI will be held. Such delays put a terrible strain on relatives looking for answers but it is also in the interests of justice generally to hold FAIs as quickly as possible. Mr Bollan, who had to wait 18 months for the investigation into his daughter's death, points out that the sooner FAIs are held, the more likely it is that the facts will be fresh in witnesses' minds.
The proposal for three new centres has the potential to cut such delays for the simple reason that the hearings would not be competing with normal court business, although Patrick McGuire, a partner at Thompsons, does have some concerns about the idea. Mr McGuire believes that one specialist centre in Edinburgh would be a better proposal, with relatives given the option of holding the FAI there or in a court closer to their home.
Mr McGuire's proposal is worth considering as part of a wider look at reform that is prepared to tackle the fundamentals. For example, the rule that an FAI has to be delayed until after any criminal proceedings should also be looked at. Lessons could well be learned from the English system in which an inquest is opened as soon as possible and then, if a criminal investigation begins, adjourned.
Clearly, the cost of any reforms would have to be a factor, although using the new centres for other government business as well could help. Whatever happens, the focus of reform should be on designing a system that can swiftly carry out FAIs not only to provide answers for bereaved families but, just as importantly, to prevent other people dying for the same reasons.