Fatal accident inquiries in Scotland

A fatal accident inquiry (FAI) is not about apportioning blame – but it’s important to seek advice early. Here’s what you need to know.

All sudden, suspicious, accidental, unexpected and unexplained deaths in Scotland are investigated by the procurators fiscal, rather than a coroner's office.

A procurator fiscal is a qualified lawyer employed by the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) who represents the interests of the public in Scotland and is accountable to the Lord Advocate.

Under Section 1 of the Fatal Accidents and Sudden Deaths Inquiry (Scotland) Act 1976, a procurator fiscal may hold a public inquiry before a sheriff.

In some cases (for example, a death in police custody), a fatal accident inquiry (FAI) is mandatory. In other cases, an FAI can be held at the discretion of the Lord Advocate if it's deemed necessary in the public interest. FAIs are relatively less common for medical cases than coroners' inquests in the rest of the UK.

What to expect

As with an inquest in other parts of the UK, an FAI is an inquisitorial process and is not about apportioning blame. That being said, it's important to get advice and support from us if you're going to be involved, particularly if you feel you might be criticised.

If you're employed by a Health Board, they will take advice from their solicitors (the Central Legal Office) who may well offer some support to you as an employee. Either way, discussing the case with our medico-legal advisers will give you additional support and, if deemed appropriate, individual legal representation.

If you're a GP and not directly employed, this support is unlikely to be available - so it's important to contact us for help early on.

Some key points of FAIs include:

  • there is no automatic right to a public inquiry unless the death occurred in custody or during the deceased's employment
  • doctors can be ordered to give evidence and answer any questions put to them at the inquiry, although no witness is obliged to answer questions that could result in an incriminating answer
  • any party who can show a relevant interest in the proceedings may attend the FAI, be legally represented, present evidence and question witnesses
  • any serious criticism of a doctor by the sheriff needs to be self-reported to the GMC (as is the case with any serious criticism by a coroner elsewhere in the UK).

At the conclusion of the FAI, the sheriff issues a final report - the determination - which includes:

  • details of the time, place and cause of death
  • any reasonable precautions which could have prevented the death
  • defects in any system that contributed to the death
  • any other relevant facts.

When to contact us for help

If you're asked for a report or informed that you need to give evidence, please contact our medico-legal advisers as soon as possible.

This page was correct at publication on 20/04/2022. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.