Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Holyrood Committee hears testimony Crown Office specialist deaths unit should be able to investigate retrospective cases of suspicious deaths

The Scottish Parliament today heard evidence from Fife-based Law reform campaigner Tom Minogue the Crown Office should be able to investigate historic cases of suspicious deaths. After hearing detailed accounts of cases of concern, the Petitions Committee agreed to write to the Scottish Government and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service seeking responses to points raised in Petition 1332 and during the discussion.

Mr Minogue in his oral presentation to the Petitions Committee cited another famous Scottish case of death in suspicious circumstances—that of Dundee man Billy Harris—as evidence that the petitioner (Mrs Borgesson)'s concerns were not fanciful or unique but were part of a concerning pattern of cases that may have predicated the actions of the Lord Advocate in setting up the new investigative team.

Fife-based Law reform campaigner Tom Minogue speaks at Scottish Parliament on merits of new specialist deaths team having a remit to investigate historical cases of suspicious deaths.

PE1332 Petition by Guje Borgesson, calling on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to ensure that the new specialist deaths unit being created by the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service is able to investigate retrospective and current cases of suspicious deaths, including after a Fatal Accident Inquiry has taken place, where the bereaved can reasonably demonstrate that the circumstances of the death were suspicious and that there is a robust and open mechanism, involving the families, for an independent review of such suspicious deaths.

The official report from the Scottish Parliament on the hearing follows :

Suspicious Deaths (Investigation) (PE1332)

The Convener: This afternoon we will consider six new petitions, taking evidence on the first two. PE1332 from Guje Börjesson calls on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to ensure, first, that the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service's new specialist deaths unit is able to investigate retrospective and current cases of suspicious death, including after a fatal accident inquiry has taken place, if the bereaved can reasonably demonstrate that the circumstances of the death were suspicious and, secondly, that there is a robust and open mechanism, which involves the families, for an independent review of such suspicious deaths.

Mrs Börjesson was due to make an oral statement to the committee but unfortunately she is unable to attend because of ill health. Instead, Tom Minogue will speak to the petition. Mr Minogue, I welcome you to the meeting and invite you to make an opening statement of no more than three minutes, after which members will have the opportunity to ask questions.

Tom Minogue: Guje Börjesson submitted this petition because she does not accept that her daughter Annie died accidentally or committed suicide. Instead, she believes that Annie might have been the victim of foul play because there was no evidence that she was contemplating or had committed suicide; in fact, the evidence suggests that just before her death she was threatened by an unidentified man. Although Mrs Börjesson cannot demand that the authorities solve the mystery of her daughter's death, she has every right to expect them to try and is convinced that they have not. Of course, if she lived in Scotland, she could raise her concerns with her elected representative just as the Harris family from Dundee did with John McAllion, a previous convener of the committee, who championed their cause because he, too, doubted the authorities' conclusion that the Harris's son, who was found dead with serious head injuries, had died by accident.

Indeed, when I read John McAllion's speech in Parliament about the case, I was struck by the similarities between the Harris and Börjesson cases. Strathclyde Police called both deaths accidental. Both cases had no corroborating evidence to indicate accident or suicide. In fact, the opposite is true—both victims had unexplained injuries and other anomalies. Both bereaved families were refused fatal accident inquiries; had their loved ones' bodies returned in shocking and distressing states; and spent fruitless years trying to prise information from the authorities before enlisting the help of investigative journalists. Both cases attracted widespread media attention. The Harris case, for example, spawned a television documentary and the Börjesson case is to be the subject of a similar film. Last but not least, both cases attracted an outpouring of public concern that ended in Parliament, the Harris case at Westminster and the Börjesson case, with a petition of more than 3,000 supporting signatures from 57 different countries, here at Holyrood.

Since Annie's death, Guje Börjesson has travelled to Scotland at least once a year and has acted as a sort of Swedish Miss Marple. She has tried to glean information from the authorities and to speak to people who knew her daughter in the hope that that can shed light on her death. That is a sad indictment of our country's reputation, and it must be detrimental to Mrs Börjesson's health, safety and sanity. Both cases—and the other two cases to which the petitioner has referred—endorse Elish Angiolini's call for a Crown counsel-led team of highly trained specialists to investigate complex deaths. Elish Angiolini has said that that "will provide reassurance to the nearest relatives and the public that the circumstances of a death have been fully and timeously investigated."

The petition is evidence that such public confidence is currently lacking.

I stress that those are my observations on the Börjesson case and that I was asked to comment on the petition at the last minute.

The Convener: We are grateful to you for stepping in.

Tom Minogue: I will answer any questions that I am able to answer.

Anne McLaughlin (Glasgow) (SNP): I used to work for Aileen Campbell MSP and I have met Guje Börjesson a couple of times. It was clear that she has suffered greatly since her daughter's death.

I want to pick up on something in the petition. Guje Börjesson says:

"Questions with relevance to the investigation ... posed to ... Strathclyde Police, by MSP Aileen Campbell have not been replied to."

Aileen Campbell and I had a three-and-a-half-hour meeting with senior police officers in which every detail of the case was gone into, and the answers were passed on. I cannot say any more than that. Perhaps something has happened since then and further questions have arisen, but we were certainly satisfied that all the questions had been answered. That said, the circumstances were particularly difficult, as Mrs Börjesson lives in Sweden and her daughter died here. She thought that the case had not been fully investigated. It must be incredibly difficult to come to terms with what happened to her daughter.

How much further should we take things? Is there a danger that, if there is a fatal accident inquiry, it will still be thought that more has to be explored? What would happen if it was thought in a further review that nothing more had to be explored? I am using the case as an example because it has gone on for years, and many MSPs, police officers and journalists have looked into it. Is there a danger that we will simply keep on reviewing?

Tom Minogue: There is that danger, of course, but Guje Börjesson has not got past the first hurdle of having a fatal accident inquiry. If the Lord Advocate, Mrs Angiolini, sees the need for a Crown counsel-led team of highly trained specialists to investigate such complex deaths, there is something in that idea. The Lord Advocate must also realise that the public do not have confidence that investigations are always done timeously and thoroughly. That is simply common sense. We have respect for the ordinary bobby on the beat, who has a difficult job, but the ordinary bobby on the beat is only an ordinary person with pressures of work. Perhaps they cannot identify things that a specialist team might be able to identify.

I drew the comparison with the Billy Harris case, which was taken up by a well-respected past convener of this committee, because in looking at the Börjesson case as an observer I get the impression that some people think that we are just talking about a grief-stricken, middle-aged mother who cannot see any wrong in her daughter or believe that she would have taken her own life. I do not think that that is the case; Guje Börjesson is an intelligent and resourceful woman and she will go on until she is satisfied that attempts, at least, are being made to find out what happened to her daughter. Right from the word go, she has not had that; she has come up against officialdom in Scotland. That is why I brought John McAllion into it—Mrs Börjesson can be dismissed easily as an emotive mother, but John McAllion found exactly the same thing, and worse, with the same police force in relation to one of his constituents. He was not related to Billy Harris. He was a dispassionate observer, but he came across exactly the same thing. I recommend that you read John McAllion's speech, which is in Hansard; he made it on 16 March 1993. He saw the grief that had been caused to a family.

It is not fanciful to say that some of what Mrs Börjesson says is true. We know for a fact that she had to have a sit-down protest in Kilmarnock police station—if you have dealt with her, you will probably know that that is the case—to find out information about her daughter. It reflects badly on us as a nation that a foreigner who comes to this country when she has lost her daughter, who adopted this country, is treated in this manner. Mrs Börjesson speaks very highly, as you will probably also know, of the help, warmth and assistance she has received from ordinary people in this country, but she does not have much good to say about her experience of coming up against officialdom. I have made the judgment that she is not a neurotic mother who sees conspiracies and suchlike about her poor daughter; I think that she is a reasonable, intelligent woman. You asked, to get right back to your question, how long can the process go on? Examining it once would be a start, in this case.

Anne McLaughlin: I do not want to focus on Guje Börjesson as an individual. I understand that she did not get a fatal accident inquiry but, on the wider issue, there are people who will never accept, you know, and they will want another investigation and another investigation. I am asking you how many investigations it takes. I am not saying that I necessarily disagree with what you are saying; I am asking whether there is a danger that we keep on reviewing and reviewing.

Tom Minogue: One review would be a start in this case.

Anne McLaughlin: In this case—but in the wider context?

Tom Minogue: In the wider context, you should continue until you get to the truth. Of course there will be disingenuous people who, having been convicted of a crime, will want it re-examined and re-examined not because they did not commit the crime but because they might want to make capital out of that. The specialist team that Elish Angiolini envisages would surely have the wit and wisdom to sort the wheat from the chaff.

In Mrs Börjesson's case it is undeniable that she is not the chaff; she is the real McCoy. Her daughter's body was brought home to Sweden, with her waist-length hair hacked off, in a poor condition, but it was not as bad as in the case of the Harris family, whose son's body lay for 42 days at room temperature in the custody of Strathclyde Police and was then sent home in a disinfected body bag and the parents could not even look at it—they could not even see their son. That is why I brought John McAllion into it, to show you that this woman's grief and her experiences are not fanciful.

The Convener: Are there any other questions, before we decide what to do? As there are none, can I have suggestions about how we proceed with the petition?

Bill Butler: As is obvious, this is a disturbing case. In view of Mr Minogue's response to my colleague, Anne McLaughlin, what I am about to suggest may or may not give closure. Who can tell? At the bare minimum we should write to the Scottish Government and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service to ask a number of questions. First, what is their response to the petition? We should get that on the record. Secondly, will the new specialist deaths unit, as referred to in the petition, be able to investigate cases of suspicious deaths? If not, why not? Perhaps we could ask the Government when it will respond to the recommendations that Lord Cullen made in the report of his review of fatal accident inquiry legislation. I think that those are reasonable first steps to take on the petition.

The Convener: Do members agree with Bill Butler?

Tom Minogue: May I say something that relates to what Bill Butler said? I think that if we ask any group that self-regulates whether it has made a mistake and whether it has done enough, it will generally say that it has done everything. I think that Elish Angiolini sees that, too. A specialist unit would not necessarily have been involved in the original investigation and could look at the case differently. In the case that we are talking about, the people who have already said that they have done enough will say again, "Yes, we have done enough. We have looked at the case in all ways."

Bill Butler: You make a fair point. There is always a danger of that happening. However, I think that my suggested approach—if the committee agrees to take it—is correct, in that we will get responses and then do what we are paid to do, which is exercise our judgment and see what we think of the responses. Sometimes, when people say they did everything they could the way they say it leads to further questions. Do you agree?

Tom Minogue: Yes. If you read Hansard you will see that John McAllion mentioned that Strathclyde Police said that, in the year in which Billy Harris died, it had no unsolved murders. The implication is that the police are under pressure not to have murder cases on their hands, so it is sometimes easier to say, as Strathclyde Police said about Billy Harris, "This chap fell backwards five times, striking his head in the same place five times, getting up again each time, even though he was very drunk. It was an accident," rather than, "Someone beat Billy Harris about the head with an object, hitting him five times in the same place." There are pressures on the body that does the original investigation—that is undeniable.

Bill Butler: I hear what you said, but we will have a go nevertheless.

The Convener: Does the committee agree with the proposed approach?

Members indicated agreement.

The Convener: That means that we are opting to continue our consideration of the petition. I thank Mr Minogue for his evidence.

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