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19 May 2015, 07:19
Scottish Government proposals to reform fatal accident inquiries will make them "appropriate for a modern legal system'', Scotland's most senior judge has said.
Lord Gill, the Lord President and Lord Justice General, will tell Holyrood's Justice Committee what he thinks of the changes in the Fatal Accidents and Sudden Deaths etc (Scotland) Bill.
In a submission to MSPs, he said: "I consider that the provisions of this Bill will update the fatal accident inquiry process in a way that is appropriate for a modern legal system.''
The Scottish Government has brought forward the legislation in a bid to implement most of the recommendations made in a 2009 review of the system by retired senior judge Lord Cullen.
The Bill seeks to make the system more efficient and would extend the categories of death for which it is mandatory to hold an FAI. It would also allow for FAIs to be held into the deaths of Scots abroad where the body is repatriated.
But the Sheriffs' Association, which is also giving evidence to the committee today, has raised concerns that the legislation could result in changes being made to who conducts FAIs, and to the process becoming more centralised.
Honorary secretary Sheriff Derek O'Carroll: "It seems to be envisaged that sheriff principals will no longer conduct inquiries. FAIs involve the consideration of matters of significant public interest and importance which attract a significant media profile.
"The inquiries into the Glasgow refuse lorry accident and the Clutha helicopter crash are two examples of such inquiries which are likely to arise in the coming year. The public have a reasonable expectation that such cases will be dealt with by the most senior judicial office holder in the sheriffdom concerned.''
His submission also said the legislation included an "emphasis on sheriff principals designating one or more sheriffs as specialists in fatal accident inquiries''.
Sheriff O'Carroll said: "The designation of specialist sheriffs is likely to lead to the centralisation of FAIs and the grouping of specialist sheriffs in only a small number of courts or specialist FAI centres. We would strongly oppose such a move.''
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: "This Bill does not stop sheriffs principal from presiding over FAIs and they will continue to preside over complex, high-profile cases such as the Super Puma inquiry in Aberdeen last year.
"The vast majority of FAIs will continue to take place in local sheriff courts and there is no intention to centralise FAIs - the Bill simply provides for flexibility in accommodating FAIs.
"Some sheriffs will be designated as specialists in FAIs and this will afford the Lord President and sheriffs principal a flexible and experienced judicial resource to allow FAI to be dealt with as effectively as possible.''