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Paraquat (Fatal Accident Inquiry)

Volume 887: debated on Wednesday 5 March 1975

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asked the Lord Advocate if he will make a statement about his reasons for ordering a fatal accident inquiry in the Kirkcudbright paraquat case.

In terms of Section 3 of the Fatal Accidents and Sudden Deaths Inquiry (Scotland) Act 1906 I may, in any case of sudden or suspicious death in Scotland, whenever it appears to me to be expedient in the public interest, direct that a public inquiry into such death and the circumstances thereof shall be held. In the case of the death of Ralph Harold Anders there was not evidence to warrant bringing criminal charges against anyone, but the death was suspicious as some of the evidence appeared to point away from accident or suicide. The death had attracted considerable public interest locally and there was much speculation and rumour. Moreover, solicitors acting for two brothers of the deceased specifically asked me to direct that an inquiry be held, as the brothers were concerned about how the deceased had met his death. In all these circumstances it seemed to me that the proper course was to direct that an inquiry be held under the 1906 Act.

Does the Lord Advocate appreciate that this and other cases have caused widespread public concern in Scotland over the fact that in a fatal accident inquiry a jury should be invited to return a verdict of homicide against a named person or persons? Is he aware that if that were done such a person would either have had a public verdict of homicide returned against him without trial or, if he were charged, before trial? Does the Lord Advocate appreciate that this is in keeping with the bad procedures of the law of England and contrary to the good procedures and practice of the law of Scotland?

The hon. and learned Gentleman has made a statement with which I do not agree, and I do not think that, on reflection, when he reads his supplementary question, he will agree with it himself. For reasons best known to himself the hon. and learned Gentleman does not follow the distinction drawn in the 1906 Act between fatal accident inquiries, on the one hand, where the emphasis is on accident, and sudden or suspicious death inquiries on the other hand. The Anders inquiry was a suspicious death public inquiry which Parliament specifically empowers the Lord Advocate to order. Where there is suspicion there is necessarily the possibility of subsequent criminal proceedings. The hon. and learned Gentleman would probably have been the first to complain had I not ordered such an inquiry into Mr. Anders' death.

With respect, may I ask whether that is the basis for the anxiety? Is not the basis for the anxiety the feeling among many of us that some of the evidence and statements made might have adversely prejudiced some people involved in the inquiry? Will my right hon. and learned Friend look at this again?

The fatal accident raises an important point, which I have to consider. I assure my hon. Friend that matters of that kind are in my mind and that when the notes of evidence have been received—they have not yet been received—I shall study them with great care, bearing in mind the points he has made.