Brains kept without family knowledge after post-mortem examinations

Examination table Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Pathologists sometimes advise that organs be retained for further tests

Brains were retained without the knowledge of bereaved relatives in six cases after post-mortem examinations in Scotland, according to a report.

Details emerged during an independent review of Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) procedures.

Three cases were the result of an "oversight" - the others because of a lack of procedural "clarity", it said.

The prosecutions inspectorate has made 10 recommendations designed to prevent similar cases in the future.

In three cases, the brains of deceased persons were kept to help the investigation into their deaths, but relatives were not told the brain had been retained by the pathology department after the body was released.

In the three other cases, brains were kept for specialist neuropathology examination after the deaths resulted in criminal proceedings and, ultimately, convictions for murder.

The six cases, which took place between 2007 and 2012, were identified in the national audit ordered by the Lord Advocate.

A further 10 cases were found where relatives were told an organ had been kept but were not asked their views on what should happen once it was no longer required.

The Inspectorate of Prosecution in Scotland (ISP) report concluded: "The systematic failures that led to nearest relatives not being informed that an organ had been retained were two-fold.

"The first was a failure to adhere to COPFS procedures as a result of an oversight by those dealing with the death in local procurator fiscal offices.

"The second arose due to a lack of clarity, following the creation of specialist homicide teams, on whether it was the responsibility of the team investigating the criminal aspect of the death or those, to whom the death was initially reported, to liaise with the nearest relatives."

Further tests

Further audits of the procedures governing organ retention will be carried out in six and 12 months' time.

HM Chief Inspector of Prosecutions Michelle Macleod said: "The public must have confidence that the examination of a body after death is conducted in a respectful manner and the nearest relatives are informed of all important decisions, including if an organ or significant body part has to be retained and of the reasons for retention."

"We are pleased that COPFS has accepted all of the recommendations and has commenced implementation of those that relate solely to COPFS."

The COPFS said it received reports of about 12,000 deaths a year and, in "a very small number" of cases, pathologists advised they would need to retain an organ for further scientific examination.

"COPFS appreciates that the public will wish to be assured that processes are in place so that families affected by this requirement are aware of the position," it said in a statement.

"Accordingly, we will publish information to confirm the small numbers of cases where this has occurred annually.

"As at 30 June 2014, there are only six cases in which organs have been retained.

"The family in each case has been advised of the position by the procurator fiscal and made aware of the reason for the retention."