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Our role in investigating deaths

The Scottish Fatalities Investigation Unit (SFIU) is a specialist team in COPFS responsible for investigating deaths. SFIU investigates all sudden, suspicious, accidental and unexplained deaths. This includes the sudden, suspicious, accidental, and unexplained deaths of children.

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. Doctors report deaths to us in line with published guidance to medical practitioners.

Once a person’s death has been reported to COPFS we will decide if an investigation needs to be carried out.

Types of deaths we investigate

Sudden and unexplained deaths

Whether or not the cause of death is known, if a doctor determines that a death was clinically unexpected it is described as a ‘sudden death’.

When the cause of death is not known or is not clear to a doctor, this is described as an ‘unexplained death’.

Suspicious deaths

COPFS investigates deaths where the circumstances suggest that criminal conduct caused the death. Any ‘suspicious’ suspicious death must be reported to COPFS.

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 no further action is needed. This could happen if we speak with the doctor and agree a cause of death. A death certificate would then be issued.

Alternatively, we might decide that further investigation is required.

Family involvement

We may request information from the person's relatives and doctor. This includes information about the circumstances of the death and any recent medical history.

Police involvement

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:

  • carry out interviews with medical staff who cared for the person
  • carry out interviews with those present at the time of death
  • search for evidence

The police will inform us of any new information they discover.

Post-mortem examinations

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 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.

After the post-mortem examination, the pathologist will issue a medical certificate. The medical certificate will state the cause of death and be given to the nearest relatives. A copy of the post-mortem examination report can also be requested.

Keeping relatives informed

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 which you can access here.

Depending on the stage of the investigation, we may ask the police to provide this information or nearest relatives may receive this information from a COPFS Victim Information and Advice colleague. We will also ask for the views of nearest relatives when we make decisions

After a death investigation

Many death investigations conclude once we know the cause of death. Some deaths may need further investigation. These cases can take some time due to complex technical and medical issues requiring expert opinion.

Criminal prosecution

COPFS may begin a criminal prosecution following a death investigation. A prosecution may take place where criminal conduct caused or contributed to the death.

Fatal Accident Inquiry

A Fatal Accident Inquiry is a court hearing to establish what happened to cause a sudden, unexplained or suspicious death.

Fatal Accident Inquiries must take place when someone dies in legal custody, or when a death is caused by an accident at work. They can also be held in other circumstances if it is decided that this is in the public interest. The purpose of a Fatal Accident Inquiry is to establish what happened and prevent future deaths from happening in similar circumstances.