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Update from the Lord Advocate on death investigations and coronavirus

As Lord Advocate I remain constitutionally responsible for the investigation of sudden, unexpected and unexplained deaths in Scotland throughout the coronavirus pandemic. This work is done on my behalf, with expertise and professionalism, by dedicated staff of the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS).

It is a fundamental aim of our system that the Crown should conduct investigations with a view to helping prevent future deaths in similar circumstances. I am committed to ensuring that this principle is upheld.

There is understandable public concern over deaths that occur where coronavirus is a feature, and this can be more keenly felt in particular circumstances, for example where deaths occur in care homes or in an employment context. Accordingly, I would like to outline the current arrangements for death investigations.

The requirement for sudden, unexpected and unexplained deaths to be reported to COPFS remains in place at this time, subject to one adjustment.

The one change in reporting arrangements was set out in a joint letter from the Chief Medical Officer, COPFS, Police Scotland and the Registrar General which detailed the processes to be followed for providing a Medical Certificate of Cause of Death during the pandemic.

This letter informed medical professionals that COVID-19, or presumed COVID-19 deaths, do not require to be reported to COPFS unless there is some other substantive reason for reporting the death. Information on what categories of deaths should be reported is contained in the joint letter.

This approach is similar to those taken during previous significant outbreaks of infectious disease and reduces the demands placed on medical professionals. The application of these arrangements will remain under review as the pandemic develops.

Other sudden, unexpected and unexplained deaths must continue to be reported in the usual way.

The nature and extent of the investigation required in relation to each death reported to the procurator fiscal will depend on its circumstances. In appropriate circumstances, as is always the case, it may be decided that a death, or deaths, should be the subject of a fatal accident inquiry or prosecution.

Senior staff at COPFS are monitoring death reports closely and will contribute to work undertaken to understand and learn from this pandemic.

James Wolffe QC
Lord Advocate