Natasha’s family go on waiting while the sheriff goes on holiday

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By Kenneth Roy

Earlier this week, I suggested that for many of the people who have been arrested as a result of the extensive phone-hacking investigation on both sides of the border, the process has become the punishment. Months, years, drift by without trial.

In this second article, I want to highlight other victims of a judicial system which seems to be in a state of near-paralysis. They are not suspected of any crime. They do not daily endure the prospect of a prison sentence if their case ever comes to court and they are found guilty. But their suffering is none the less real. It is indeed greater. All of them have lost someone.

The performance of inquiries into fatal accidents in Scotland is woeful and rapidly becoming a national disgrace. But it was not always so.

Here are two examples from the past. On a January day in 1953 – a day of ferocious weather in most of Europe – the British Railways ferry Princess Victoria sank between Stranraer and Larne with the loss of 135 lives. Not one woman survived; not one child.

Only seven weeks later, a full-scale QC-led inquiry began. Within two months of its conclusion, it had produced a report of prodigious length, painstaking in its detail, which was highly critical of the ferry owners. The timeline from day of disaster to day of report was less than half a year.

Admittedly, the Princess Victoria inquiry was held not in Scotland but in Northern Ireland. But a similar sense of urgency attended a tragedy of purely Scottish jurisdiction – the Ibrox disaster on another terrible January day (1971) in which 66 supporters suffocated on the notorious Stairway 13. Only five weeks after this traumatic event a fatal accident inquiry began in Glasgow. It was conducted by the sheriff of Lanarkshire, Allan Walker, sitting with a jury. After the evidence was heard, the jury retired, just as it would have done in a criminal trial, and duly brought in its verdict.

Although it is possible to argue with the findings of both inquiries – and I do; but that’s another story – the speed with which they were organised was commendable. It spoke of a deep respect for the bereaved families, recognising the need of all victims for the truth to be heard and lives to be accounted for. The continuing agony of the Hillsborough families shows what happens when this need is disregarded or treated with contempt.

I have chosen two extreme examples to illustrate that it is possible to arrange a judicial inquiry without delay, even when many witnesses are involved. No-one would reasonably expect the same accelerated timetable to apply to the regular hearing of fatal accident inquiries. But nor is it fair to the families that these inquiries are being held years rather than weeks after the event.

On 31 March 2010, a school outing from Lanark Grammar School to Alton Towers, which went ahead despite atrocious conditions, got no further than a few miles when the bus carrying the party of children and teachers crashed in a snow storm. One of the pupils, Natasha Paton, was killed. The decision to proceed with the trip, the circumstances of the accident itself, the delay in finding Natasha’s body, raised so many questions that a fatal accident inquiry seemed to be inescapable. Natasha’s family deserved no less; the public interest demanded it.

Yet it was not until 20 November 2012 – two years and eight months later – that the FAI began. How did this excessive delay affect the quality of testimony? How did it affect a grieving family? It is impossible for me to say.

The inquiry was not a long one. It has now been over for five months; we have entered a sixth; it will soon be half a year since the last witness spoke. But still we are waiting for the sheriff’s report. I understand on good authority that publication is ‘not imminent’ and that the sheriff concerned has just returned from a three-week holiday.

It is now three years and one month since the Lanark school bus crash. The family of Natasha Paton continue to wait for the truth about their daughter’s death.

When the Crown Office set up the Scottish Fatalities Investigation Unit, it gave a public undertaking that it was ‘determined to deal with cases quickly’. This undertaking has been shown to be worthless. It continues to deal with cases at the proverbial snail’s pace.

Last July, a 15-year-old schoolgirl, Kayleigh Scott, somehow got herself onto the roof of a tenement block opposite Ayr bus station. She was there with her sister Jodie, aged 17, and ‘one or two older men’. There was an incident, the nature of which has not been disclosed, and shortly before midnight Kayleigh fell 60 feet to her death.

The Scottish Review revealed one of the most relevant facts about this case: that at the time of her death Kayleigh Scott was formally part of the care system. She had the status of a looked-after child under the supervision of the local authority. She was a young person at risk.

We called at the time for a fatal accident inquiry into her death (just as we did in the case of Natasha Paton). Ten months on, we have the Crown Office’s word that the death of Kayleigh Scott remains under investigation. No decision appears to have been taken on whether it merits an inquiry; so the many troubling questions remain unanswered.

There certainly needs to be an inquiry– into the workings of fatal accident inquiries if nothing else.

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy and the Scottish Review