Last year, the State Pathologist's Department (SPD) carried out 1,176 autopsies or post-mortem examinations. The aim of a post-mortem is to determine what caused a sudden, unexpected or unnatural death.
The Criminal Justice Inspection NI has found that the standard of service in the department was good, but identified significant issues around the duration of time it takes to complete reports, as well as the administration and business processes underpinning the service.
"The State Pathologist's Department plays a key role in the handling of unexpected and suspicious deaths by preparing reports for the Coroners Service for Northern Ireland and supporting criminal investigations," Brendan McGuigan, Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland explained.
"It is also vital in helping relatives and friends establish the circumstances around a loved one's death, where it is unexpected or suspicious."
The Chief Inspector said that the detail of the reports was found to be high with clinical standards being met and specialist input included as required.
Inspectors were concerned by the speed at which some reports were being completed - particularly when the Coroners Service indicated these delays impacted on bereaved families.
Brendan McGuigan, Chief Inspector
"Inspectors recognise there is no single or easily remedied cause for delayed reports, but steps must be taken to streamline the process of producing them and improve performance in this important area," Mr McGuigan added.
"Silo working needs to be addressed in tandem with greater flexibility to better facilitate the timely production of reports."
Mr McGuigan indicated administrative processes within the State Pathologist's Department also required improvement and that many issues identified after its first inspection nine years ago still existed.
"The limited progress in addressing problems within the State Pathologist's Department such as management responsibility, accountability and improving its relationship with its funding body (formerly the Northern Ireland Office, now the Department of Justice) runs the risk of damaging the quality of the overall service delivered to the public, and must be addressed," the Chief Inspector added.
In making two recommendations for improvement, Mr McGuigan suggested merging Forensic Science NI, the forensics department of the PSNI and the SPD into a single overarching body.
"This would reduce the tendency for criminal justice partners to attribute systematic failings to one another," he explained.
He also recommended cutting the administrative functions of the post of State Pathologist and transferring them to a business support function following the introduction of any new structure.
"In the interim, greater engagement between the State Pathologist's Department and the criminal justice organisations utilising its reports around how best to meet their varying needs, such as through shorter or phased reporting, could help to improve timeliness and maintain clinical standards," concluded Mr McGuigan.
Welcoming the report, Justice Minister David Ford said he was pleased it acknowledged the high quality of the reports by the department which assist coroners and assist police investigations.
"The inspectors have highlighted the importance of reports being produced in a timely way," he added.
"The Department is committed to removing any unnecessary delays in the completion of reports in recognition of the needs of bereaved families and the justice system. It is an ongoing challenge, however, given the complexity of some cases and the need for specialist tests or specialist opinion to inform post mortem reports.
"The inspectors have recommended that the delivery of forensic pathology services should be considered within an ongoing review of how forensic science services are delivered to the criminal justice system."
The minister concluded: "Consideration of forensic pathology services will be included within that review to ensure that those services best meet the needs of the justice system."