The Lord Advocate is the ministerial head of COPFS. This means they are the head of the systems of criminal prosecution and investigation of deaths in Scotland.
The Lord Advocate has responsibility for the investigation of all sudden, suspicious, accidental and unexplained deaths. This includes the sudden, suspicious, accidental, and unexplained deaths of children.
Death investigations are conducted by COPFS on behalf of the Lord Advocate.
When we investigate deaths
When someone dies in Scotland, a death certificate is normally issued by a doctor and the person can then be buried or cremated.
If a doctor is required to report a death to COPFS, a death certificate cannot be issued by the doctor until the report is sent. Doctors report deaths to us in line with guidance to medical practitioners.
Police Scotland can also report deaths to COPFS.
When someone reports a death to COPFS, it means we may need to investigate what happened. It does not always mean that the death is suspicious or that anyone is to blame.
Types of deaths we investigate
Sudden and unexplained deaths
If a doctor determines that a death was clinically unexpected, it is described as a ‘sudden death’. A death can be described as a ‘sudden death’ even if the cause of death is known.
When the cause of death is not known or is not clear to a doctor, this is described as an ‘unexplained death’.
COPFS investigates deaths where the circumstances suggest that criminal conduct caused the death. Any ‘suspicious’ death must be reported to COPFS.
Once a person’s death has been reported to COPFS, we will decide if an investigation needs to be carried out.
Who investigates the deaths?
The investigation of sudden or suspicious deaths has become more complex in recent years. COPFS has dedicated teams of staff for the most complex cases.
The Scottish Fatalities Investigation Unit (SFIU) is a specialist team in COPFS responsible for most of COPFS’s death investigation work. SFIU oversees all deaths investigations except where there is evidence of a crime having taken place.
Other COPFS teams that investigate particular types of death are:
- the Covid Deaths Investigation Team
- the National Homicide Team
- the Road Traffic Fatalities Investigation Unit
- the Health and Safety Investigation Unit
- the Custody Deaths Unit
Information for bereaved relatives
The sudden death of a loved one can be a traumatic event for nearest relatives. COPFS is committed to providing nearest relatives with information during the investigation. We outline our commitments to bereaved families in the Family Liaison Charter.
Depending on the stage of the investigation, we may ask the police to keep you informed. A COPFS member of staff from the Victim Information and Advice (VIA) team may also keep you informed. We will also ask for the views of nearest relatives when we make important decisions.
Our Guide for bereaved family members explains the process for investigating a family member's death and has information about where to get support.
What happens during a death investigation
Once a person’s death is reported to COPFS, we decide what further action will be taken, if any.
We might determine that there is no further action needed. The doctor may be able to issue a death certificate with a cause of death. COPFS would not have any more involvement if there was nothing else that needed to be investigated.
Alternatively, we might decide that limited investigation is required.
During a death investigation, we might ask for information from different people. For example, we might ask for information from:
- the person's relatives
- the person’s GP
- medical staff who cared for the person
- care home staff if the person was in a care home
The type of information we ask for could include the circumstances of the death or any relevant medical history.
Our Guide for bereaved family members answers common questions about the investigation of a family member's death.
We may tell the police to investigate a death. This happens when more information is needed to find out the cause of death. It does not always mean that we think a crime has taken place.
We may ask the police to:
- speak to family members
- carry out interviews with medical staff who cared for the person
- carry out interviews with those who were present at the time of death
- speak to people who may have information which is relevant to the death
- look for and take possession of any items that may help in working out the circumstances of the death. This may include the person’s mobile telephone or other electronic devices
The police will inform us of any new information they discover.
At the end of the investigation
Most death investigations conclude once we know the cause of death and we have spoken to the police and family members.
We closed 97% of death cases where no further investigation was required within 6 weeks of receipt of the death report in the reporting year 2022/23.
Some deaths may need further investigation. A post-mortem examination might be needed as part of a death investigation. This is where a pathologist examines the body to find out why someone died.
A post-mortem examination may be required in a medical death where the doctor is not able to tell how someone died. A post-mortem examination is more likely to be needed in certain circumstances, such as the sudden or unexplained death of a child. A post-mortem examination is required in all suspicious deaths.
COPFS will decide whether a post-mortem examination is needed. In some cases, we may discuss the circumstances with the pathologist first before making that decision. Any views of the family will be taken into account, although the decision remains one for us to take. We will always be respectful of the person’s faith and only instruct an examination where it is necessary for our investigation.
In certain cases, the pathologist may be able to establish the cause of death by carrying out a non-invasive examination which is also known as an ‘external examination’ or a ‘view and grant’.
After the post mortem examination
After the post-mortem examination, the pathologist will issue a medical certificate to nearest relatives. The medical certificate will state the cause of death.
In some cases, the pathologist has to carry out further tests after the post-mortem examination before they can confirm the final cause of death. In that situation, the pathologist will often issue a medical certificate with an interim cause of death. This allows the person’s body to be returned to nearest relatives and funeral arrangements made. We will advise the family of the final cause of death when it is confirmed.
When a pathologist carries out a post-mortem examination, they will provide COPFS with a report detailing all their findings. If nearest relatives want a copy of that report, we will provide it at the end of our investigation. The post-mortem examination report can be very distressing for family members. We can send a copy of the report to your GP so that you can discuss it with them when you feel able to.
Some death investigations can only be closed once the pathologist has completed all their tests and are able to provide a final cause of death.
We concluded 65% of death cases which required further investigation within 12 weeks of receipt of the death report in the reporting year 2022/23.
Deaths needing further investigation
Some deaths will need further investigation such as:
- if there is evidence of a crime
- if the law requires that there has to be a Fatal Accident Inquiry (FAI). This is known as a ‘mandatory FAI’
- if we need to decide whether a FAI will be required. This is known as a discretionary FAI
These investigations can take a long time. This could be because we need to wait for information from other organisations or get an expert opinion.
Some types of further enquiries COPFS might ask for are:
- Asking the police to speak to witnesses and take statements from them
- Asking the police to carry out a Collision Investigation where the person has died as a result of a road traffic collision
- Looking at the contents of the person’s mobile phone to help understand why they died
- Considering reports or reviews by other organisations that may have carried out their own investigations, such as an NHS trust, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the Police Investigations & Review Commissioner (PIRC), local authorities etc.
- Asking an independent expert witness to help investigate the death
We will keep nearest relatives updated throughout the investigation. At the end of our investigation, we will tell nearest relatives what we discovered.
Fatal Accident Inquiry
A Fatal Accident Inquiry (FAI) is a public hearing to establish what happened to cause a sudden, unexplained or suspicious death.
The purpose of a Fatal Accident Inquiry is to establish what happened and prevent future deaths from happening in similar circumstances.
Our Guide to Fatal Accident Inquiries explains the FAI process and gives bereaved families information about getting support.