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Drug-related deaths

Freedom of Information: Drug-related deaths

Thank you for your e-mail of 17 June 2014. As your letter relates to drug deaths in Scotland it has been passed to me for reply.

I have considered your request for information and also whether the information could be released to you under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (FOISA). You have asked for further information held by the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) relating to the investigation of drug related deaths involving children up to the age of 18 years, for the purposes of your research study on the reporting mechanisms for child deaths by poisoning from parental misuse of drugs.

I have therefore considered your request under FOISA, and have also given general consideration to whether it would be in the public interest to share the information you have requested with you.

It may be useful if I explain the role of the Procurator Fiscal in investigating deaths in Scotland. In Scotland, as well as acting as the local independent public prosecutor in the public interest and investigating, under the authority of the Lord Advocate, deaths which appear to be suspicious where it seems from the outset to have arisen from criminality or where criminality cannot be ruled out, the Procurator Fiscal is also the public official who investigates all deaths where the circumstances are thought to require further explanation. The investigation of deaths is necessary not only in order to minimise the risk of undetected homicide or other crime, but also in pursuance of the public interest to eradicate dangers to health and life, to allay public anxiety and to ensure that full and accurate statistics are compiled. The Scottish Fatalities Investigation Unit (SFIU) is a specialist unit of dedicated specialist Procurators Fiscal who have responsibility for deaths investigations on behalf of COPFS.

I understand that you initially approached the National Records of Scotland (NRS), the official record keepers for statistical information relating to deaths, for information regarding persons up to the age of 18 years of age who have been poisoned by methadone, from 2003 to the present, and you were provided with statistical information. I also understand that you asked for more details regarding the cases identified to you by the NRS, who in turn advised you to approach COPFS. I can advise that the NRS has provided SFIU with the personal details of those individuals who feature in the statistics that you were provided; namely, the details of: the 0-14 year old drug-related deaths; and of the 15-18 year old drug-related deaths that involved only methadone or buprenorphine, in the years 2003 – 2012. There were 19 names listed. I can also advise that all 19 named deceased were reported to COPFS.

Information in relation to 4 of the named deceased are no longer held by COPFS because this information is more than 5 years old and was routinely removed from our records, in accordance with our standard records management practice. Further information on the COPFS practice in relation to the retention of records involving death investigations can be found within Chapter 4 of COPFS
Records Management Manual, which is available on the COPFS website.

In terms of section 17 of FOISA, this information is not, therefore, held by COPFS.

In relation to one of the deaths reported, a Fatal Accident Inquiry (FAI) was held, and a copy of that determination from the Scottish Court Service website can be found on the following link:

For the remaining 14 named deceased, although COPFS endeavours to provide information whenever possible, it would rarely, if ever, be in the public interest for members of the public to have access to sensitive information relating to a death investigation.

I consider that the information contained in the materials and reports held by COPFS is exempt from release in terms of sections 34(2)(b) and 39(1) of FOISA and because the release of this information outwith the confines of proper court process would, or would be likely to endanger the mental health of an individual. The information is exempt because it relates to investigations by a Scottish public authority for the purpose of ascertaining the cause of death of a person and because the release of the information in this would be likely to be damaging to the nearest relatives of the deceased. These exemptions are conditional on the 'public interest test'. This means that, in all the circumstances of each case, consideration of the public interest in disclosing the information outweighs the public interest in applying the exemption. On balance, the public interest lies in favour of upholding the exemptions. While we recognise that there is some public interest in releasing the information because you wish to consider this information as part of your wider research studies into the reporting mechanisms for child deaths by poisoning from parental misuse of drugs such as methadone and buprenorphine, this is outweighed by the public interest in preserving the personal circumstances of the investigation into a person's death, when those details have not previously been shared beyond the nearest relatives of the deceased and as such have not previously been subject of public discussion.

Additionally, some of the information you have requested is exempt under s38(1)(b) of FOISA in that it contains the personal details of third parties, the release of which would be contrary to Schedule 1 of the Data Protection Act 1998. This is an absolute exemption and accordingly I do not require to apply the public interest test in relation to it.