Guide to Fatal Accident Inquiries

Information for bereaved families about Fatal Accident Inquires (FAIs).

What is a Fatal Accident Inquiry (FAI)?

A Fatal Accident Inquiry (FAI) is a public hearing to establish what happened to cause a sudden, unexplained or suspicious death. A Fatal Accident Inquiry could take place in a court, another public building or online.

The purpose of a Fatal Accident Inquiry is to establish what happened and prevent future deaths from happening in similar circumstances.

If there is a criminal prosecution following a death investigation, that will usually take place before an FAI. In some cases, an FAI does not need to be held if all the issues that would have been explored at that FAI were covered during the prosecution.

What types of deaths require FAIs?

Fatal Accident Inquiries must take place when someone dies in legal custody or when someone dies in an accident at work. They can also be held in other circumstances if it is decided that this is in the public interest.

A Fatal Accident Inquiry is not held for every death where we are carrying out further investigations. In some cases, our investigation does not identify any issues that need to be explored at an FAI. Sometimes our investigation may find that lessons have already been learned.

Except in cases where an FAI must be held, COPFS decides whether it is in the public interest for an FAI to take place. We will make that decision at the end of our investigation.

Although it is our decision, we will always ask you for your views before we make that decision. We will also let you know if there is going to be a Fatal Accident Inquiry. You have a right to ask for that decision to be reviewed if you do not agree with it.

What happens during an FAI?

During a Fatal Accident Inquiry, a type of judge called a Sheriff hears evidence about how someone died. An FAI can last less than a day or can take weeks depending on the issues that are being looked at.

In some Inquiries, the Sheriff may ask for a ‘preliminary hearing’ before the FAI begins. The preliminary hearing is a chance for the Sheriff to find out who will be taking part in the FAI and what the issues are for the Inquiry to consider.

Evidence may be led at an Inquiry in a number of ways. Witnesses may be called to give evidence. Statements given by the witnesses to police officers may be read out as all or part of their evidence. Parties to the Inquiry may sign a document called a Joint Minute of Agreement which contains evidence which all the parties agree with, and this also becomes part of the evidence.

Sometimes, other people or organisations are represented at the Inquiry by solicitors. They are allowed to ask the witnesses questions or lead evidence by calling witnesses of their own. They will usually be represented if they also have an interest in the circumstances, such as the employer or an NHS trust.

Once all the evidence has been led, the Sheriff will issue a document called a Determination which contains all their findings based on the evidence. It might take a few days or a few months for the determination to be published.

The Sheriff may also make recommendations to prevent other deaths in similar circumstances. However, the Sheriff does not have to make recommendations. If they find that all reasonable precautions were taken to avoid a death happening, they will not make recommendations.

What is a Preliminary Hearing?

A Preliminary Hearing (PH) will be held before every FAI unless the Sheriff decides it is not necessary. The purpose of the hearing is to work how long the Inquiry might take, who will be taking part in the Inquiry and what the issues the Inquiry will consider. In some cases, more than one Preliminary Hearing will take place before the FAI.

Can I attend a Preliminary Hearing?

You do not need to attend the Preliminary Hearing, but you can attend if you want to. We will be in touch after the hearing has taken place to update you on what happened.

Where will the FAI take place?

FAIs often taken place in a Sheriff Court or other public building, usually in a court in the area where the death took place. FAIs can also be held online.

The Sheriff decides where and how the FAI takes place. You should tell us about anything which might make it difficult for you to attend the FAI and we will let the Sheriff know. This might include if you must travel a long distance to attend court, or if you do not have access to a computer or Wi-Fi to attend online.

Who can take part in an FAI?

The law explains the different people who can take part in a Fatal Accident Inquiry. The people who could be able to take part include:

  • The person who has died’s spouse, civil partner, or partner they lived with
  • The person who has died’s nearest relative if they did not have a spouse, civil partner, or live with a partner
  • The person’s employer if they died at work
  • A health and safety inspector
  • A trade union representative
  • Other people the Sheriff thinks should be part of the inquiry

The nearest relative can choose to have a solicitor represent them during the FAI. Depending on the circumstances, other parties such as the person’s employer or an NHS trust may also wish to be represented at the Inquiry.

How long does an FAI take?

The length of the Fatal Accident Inquiry will vary depending on how complicated the issues are. Some Inquiries are completed in one day while others may last a few weeks. COPFS will let you know how long the FAI might take.

What happens at the end of an FAI?

At the end of the Fatal Accident Inquiry, the Sheriff will publish a document called a ‘determination’. The Determination details all their findings based on the evidence.

In the Determination, the Sheriff must explain:

  • when and where the death occurred,
  • when and where any accident resulting in the death occurred
  • the cause or causes of the death
  • the cause or causes of any accident resulting in the death
  • Any precautions which could have been taken to avoid the death
  • any defects in any system of working which contributed to the death or any accident resulting in the death
  • any other facts which are relevant to the circumstances of the death.

Determinations are published on the Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service website.

The Sheriff’s Determination cannot be used as evidence in any other court proceedings.

Will I receive a copy of the Sheriff’s Determination?

We will update you after the Sheriff’s Determination is published and we can give you a copy then. If you have legal representation your solicitor can give you a copy.

The Determination is also available on the Scottish Courts and Tribunals website.

What happens after the Determination is published?

In most cases, once the FAI comes to an end and the Sheriff’s Determination is issued our investigation is at an end.

In some determinations, the Sheriff may make recommendations. Any organisation that the recommendation is directed to has to say what they are going to do or explain why they are not going to follow the recommendation.

If you have instructed a solicitor to begin a civil claim, that is separate from our investigation and the FAI. The determination cannot be used as evidence in that claim. You should speak to your solicitor about this for advice.

The law around Fatal Accident Inquiries

Fatal Accident Inquiries follow the rules and procedures explained in the Inquiries into Fatal Accidents and Sudden Deaths etc. (Scotland) Act 2016 and the Act of Sederunt (Fatal Accident Inquiry Rules) 2017.

Help and support for family members

Sections in this page