By Bill Heaney

The time it takes to produce a post mortem report in the popular television drama Silent Witness is days if not hours.  However, that appears not to be the case here in Scotland.
Labour MSP Monica Lennon pointed out that there is a 12-week target for these reports, and asked the Lord Advocate, Dorothy Bain, why there was a backlog.
Ms Lennon said: “In light of reports of a backlog in toxicology analyses, how many final post-mortem reports following a sudden or unexplained death were not issued within the 12-week target in 2020 and 2021. “
The Lord Advocate explained: “Post-mortem reports are issued by pathologists to the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service at the conclusion of their investigations. Pathologists do not have a target to provide those reports within 12 weeks.

Lord Advocate Dorothy Bain, Labour MSP Monica Lennon and Conservative Jamie Greene.

“The Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service aims to conduct its investigation and advise the next of kin of the outcome within 12 weeks of the initial report of the death in at least 80 per cent of those cases.
“In 2019-20, 70 per cent of cases were closed within the 12-week period, and in 2020-21 the figure was 59 per cent.
“Previous delays with toxicology analysis have played a significant part in that 12-week target not being met, but there are other legitimate reasons why it is not possible to conclude an investigation within 12 weeks, such as the need for further investigations with a view to determining whether a fatal accident inquiry should be held.
“Significant work has been done by Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service toxicologists and pathologists to address the issue.
“Since the beginning of 2021, there has been no backlog of toxicology reports. All reports have been submitted to pathologists within agreed timescales, and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service has established a dedicated team to manage the final post-mortem reports, which have now been received and require to be considered.”
Ms Lennon told her: “I do not have time to respond to all of that answer, but I note that this has been a deeply upsetting period for many families, because before the pandemic bereaved families experienced long and agonising waits for final post-mortem reports.
“Instead of being told that it could take around 12 weeks to receive a report, many were told that it could take 12 months and some were told that it could take two years.

“I am pleased that there have been improvements, but under the new service level agreement between the Scottish Police Authority’s forensic services and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, what robust measures will be put in place, and are families being consulted? Will the Lord Advocate meet me and affected families to make sure that we never get the issue wrong again?”

Ms Bain told MSPs: “I understand entirely what Ms Lennon has said and the impact that the history of the issue has had on bereaved families. I would be happy to meet and discuss the issue at significant length with Ms Lennon and those who have been profoundly affected, as she rightly described.

“The success of the toxicology improvement plan has meant that pathologists have received delayed toxicology reports alongside toxicology reports from more recent cases.

“A significant number of final post-mortem reports have therefore been received by the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service this year.

“That is set against a background of an increase of 40 per cent on the previous year’s figure for the number of deaths that are being reported to the Crown, with a resultant significant increase in the number of post-mortem examinations requiring to be instructed.

Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con) interjected: “The Faculty of Advocates has said that delayed instruction of post-mortems is a direct result of a dearth of forensic pathologists’. Does the Lord Advocate agree with that assessment, and if so, what is being done about it?”

The Lord Advocate told him this was not the case: “The delay in the provision of toxicology services related to the fact that the University of Glasgow toxicology department was no longer capable of producing the necessary toxicology reports. In 2019, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service began experiencing significant delays in production of the reports, and the university indicated that it no longer wished to undertake the contract.

“Subsequently, there was a reduction in the number of staff available within the university to produce reports, although a toxicology improvement plan was put in place with the university that has directly targeted the backlog of cases.

“Since the beginning of 2021, there has been no backlog in toxicology reports being provided to pathologists, who then need to conduct their final pathology analyses and reports.

“The difficulties arose because of the delay in provision of forensic services in the University of Glasgow, which had a knock-on effect.”

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