By Kezia Dugdale MSP
This is a blog about the Freedom of Information Act, a grieving family, and our frustrating fight to get answers from Scotland’s public authorities.
Last December, I was approached by Kevin Woodburn, whose son Shaun was tragically killed in Edinburgh on New Year’s Day, 2017.
Kevin was upset and angry with Scotland’s justice system, and together we have worked on a number of reforms and proposals to put victims and their families first.
One of the most striking elements of Kevin’s story, which was incredibly harrowing to hear, was the delay before a funeral could be held for Shaun. That’s because the defence had requested a second post-mortem.
“What do you mean a second post mortem? Why? These people are going to cut my son open not once but twice! Why? Because the defence just can. No, that’s not right, they can’t even have a reason for it, the first one hasn’t even been done, so why can they just demand a second one, surely they need some medical reason?”
You can read Kevin’s raw response to this in his own words by clicking on the image below, in which he describes the practice as ‘barbaric’.
The article was published in the Daily Record on February 8th of this year. The same day, Kevin came to see me in the Scottish Parliament and together we spoke to journalists about the family’s ordeal.
The family wanted to know what steps the Government would take to improve the system in the future, and speaking to the media is an important way to get heard.
But it was a very difficult day for them, reliving what happened in 2017 in the glare of the spotlight.
I promised to keep fighting for change on their behalf.
Using a written question in the Scottish Parliament, I asked the government whether:
(a) it and (b) the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) collects any data regarding the length of time that bodies are retained between death and burial/cremation due to an ongoing criminal investigation.
I received an answer on March 14th. Here’s the response I received:
After receiving that response, on March 20th I submitted a Freedom of Information request to the COPFS, asking for:
- The total number of cases which involved the retention of bodies where there is an ongoing criminal investigation, broken down by month, from September 2016 until the date of the most recently collected data.
- The length of time, in days, that passed in each instance from the launch of a criminal investigation to the date the body was released to the nearest relative.
- The average length of time, in days, broken down by month, that passed from the launch of a criminal investigation to the date a body was released to the nearest relative.
Under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act, I was due a response within 20 working days.
The deadline was April 17th. That day, I received an email from the COPFS.
“We are currently working on your request. However, I regret that on this occasion we will be unable to meet the statutory timescale for reply 17 April 2018. We will endeavour to reply to you as soon as possible after that date.”
Then… radio silence. My office contacted the COPFS by phone to chase it up, and a message was left, but nobody got back to us. I sent an email reminder at the end of June. My office rang the COPFS again. On September 28th, we received a telephone call to let us know the response would be coming the following week. It didn’t.
Eventually, the response arrived on October 10th – nearly SEVEN MONTHS after it was first submitted. You can read it by clicking on the link below.
The findings were hugely significant. Over 200 grieving families have been forced to wait two weeks or more before the body of a loved one is released to them. Read the coverage of the data in the Daily Record by clicking here.
The response also revealed a new protocol on second post-mortems had been ‘finalised’ following consultation.
Just days after I received the FOI response, on October 31st, the COPFS publicly announced this ‘new protocol has been introduced to speed up the release of the bodies of murder victims that have been retained for post-mortem examinations’. Read the press release by clicking here.
This was a fantastic outcome, and wouldn’t have happened without the brave campaigning of the Woodburn family.
But I have to query why it took the Crown Office so long to respond? It appears to me that officials wanted to delay the response for as long as possible to allow the new protocol to be finalised. It would ensure the Crown Office then had a positive “line to take” in any media queries from journalists.
This is not how the Freedom of Information Act is supposed to work.
While the delay was rumbling on, I also wrote to Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf, on August 23rd to ask about the post-mortem review. Many weeks later, on October 30th, I received a response from the COPFS, revealing the request had been transferred to them – but only a few days earlier. Why did Humza’s office sit on this letter until a few days before the new protocol was published?
There are lots of questions about transparency in this process. Concerns have been repeatedly raised about how the SNP government is handling Freedom of Information requests. Click here and here for some recent examples. Ministers have questions to answer.
But what these delays will never do is deter me from fighting for my constituents like the Woodburns.
My campaigning work also includes proposals to introduce a Victims’ Commissioner for Scotland. There is already a commissioner in England, and London even has its own.
I raised this with Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf in the debating chamber on September 27th and asked him to meet with Kevin and I. Humza agreed to do so. You can watch the video below.
Kezia Dugdale has challenged the Scottish Government to establish a Victims’ Commissioner following the tragic death of Shaun Woodburn.Edinburgh and Lothian MSP Ms Dugdale asked new Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf to examine the proposal in the Scottish Parliament.In response, Mr Yousaf agreed to meet her and Shaun’s father, Kevin Woodburn.Ms Dugdale said a Victims’ Commissioner should be modelled on the existing role of the Children’s Commissioner.There is a Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales, and London even has its own, but there is no commissioner for Scotland.Kezia Dugdale said: “I want the Scottish Government to consider establishing a Victims’ Commissioner and learn from the experiences of victims and witnesses in the shaping of public policy.“The Children’s Commissioner describes his job as helping people know their rights, protecting their rights, and influencing change.“My constituent Kevin Woodburn lost his son in a violent attack on New Year’s Day in 2017. He didn’t know his rights and he feels let down at every turn by a justice system he believes is stacked in favour of the accused. “I’m pleased that Humza Yousaf has agreed to meet with Kevin and myself to hear first-hand why we believe a Victims’ Commissioner is long overdue.”
Posted by Kezia Dugdale on Thursday, 27 September 2018
My office subsequently pursued a date with Humza Yousaf, in writing. We heard nothing. We followed up by email. Nothing. So I tweeted at him on November 1st. He didn’t reply.
Finally, yesterday, November 8th, we heard back from Humza’s office with a formal offer of a meeting, which will be accepted.
This has been a long campaign… and it isn’t over yet.