'Systemic failure' over body parts

Published Wednesday, 16 May 2012
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A senior PSNI officer has said that a "systemic failure" led to the retention of body parts without the knowledge of families, as the Prime Minister expressed sympathy to those "anguished" by the revelations.

'Systemic failure' over body parts
ACC Hamilton apologised to familes during a press conference on Wednesday. (© Pacemaker)

The issue reached Westminster on Wednesday - a day after it emerged that police in Northern Ireland had kept human tissue, including bones and organs, in 64 unexplained or suspicious death cases without informing relatives.

Assistant Chief Constable George Hamilton said this was allowed to happen between 1960 and 2005 due to a "systemic failure".

He offered an apology to families, saying some had been treated in a "bad way because of a lack of information".

"The context is important this was a different time, a different place, going back 50 years," ACC Hamilton said.

"None of that is excuses for the upset and anguish that has been caused to the families who are now being presented with what could be very difficult information this week."

There have been 4,000 murders in Northern Ireland since 1960. Before 2006, it was not practice to tell relatives that body parts had been kept.

State Pathologist Jack Crane said human tissue would be kept for two reasons.

There’s something that may be unique or unusual that we need to keep to assist police.

Jack Crane

"One would be because it would assist or help us determine the precise cause of death and the other would be for evidential purposes.

"Some of these cases have not come through the criminal justice system, some of these cases could still come to court," he added.

ACC Hamilton said the PSNI was satisfied that there was a good reason for the tissue retention and revealed that an audit showed the victims' identity and their next of kin.

He added that since 2006 the PSNI has been compliant with the Human Tissue Act, but that body parts retained for the purposes of police investigation are exempt from the act. He said it was "good practice" to inform families.

At Westminster on Wednesday, DUP MP Nigel Dodds called on the Prime Minister to join him in "demanding the fullest answers" about what happened and suggested an independent review should be held.

David Cameron expressed sympathy for the families on behalf of the House and said: "It must be a time of huge anguish for them."

He added: "I'm extremely sorry that this report has been leaked because it was going to be announced properly on Monday, where there could be a proper statement and a proper explanation about what has gone on."

These are matters of the greatest sensitivity and this must be very very difficult for families to handle. All of us were unaware that this material existed.

Owen Paterson

Addressing the issue of a review, Mr Cameron said he was sure the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland would listen carefully to such requests.

"But let's first of all publish the information on Monday, so that everyone can see what went wrong and why this happened."

Secretary of State Owen Paterson also expressed sympathy to the families who will be shortly told that body parts of their relatives have been kept by police.

"This has been a most difficult revelation and we have to handle it with great, great sensitivity," he said.

Policing Board Chair Brian Rea said the thoughts of the Board members are first and foremost with the families of all those affected by this "highly sensitive review".

He added that questions had been raised "that now require complete openness and transparency" from the PSNI and the other agencies involved.

"This is an issue that is not limited to policing in Northern Ireland and has been subject to review by services across the UK, with a report on the matter due to be published by the Association of Chief Police Officers," he said.

© UTV News
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10 Comments
joe90 in belfast wrote (919 days ago):
i think this story has been made into much more than it really is. i know they probably should have done it a bit different, and with hindsight, would have. there were hours of tv coverage yesterday given to this story yesterday. one local news story last night on tv, covered a story on the proposed changes to the newry hospital. the story finised off the with the revelation that over £600,000 has been paid to a consultancy firm to essentially tell us how many people live in the locality of the hospital. i think we all should be making a fuss about this.
me in northern ireland wrote (920 days ago):
Peter, it really amazes me when people talk about something they have no idea about. We have a family member who was killed in a car accident, nothing suspicious about the death. we find out yesterday that a portion of their body had been removed and kept. What you fail to think of, is how this affects a close family after decades. why this was kept we have no idea, nothing suspicious about the death, nothing sinister. but the part was kept? now we are hearing words like victim and suspicious death, and we are questioning what happened after putting someone to rest 30 yrs ago? have you any idea what that is like. As for compensation, like many of the families, we have absolutely no interest in that, we just want to know why this part of our dead family member was kept when nothing suspicious happened in the first place? We want to know what suspicious thing happened to them (if anything at all), its a total sham. If you ask me there has been a blunder, sections of post mortems lost and forgotten about, which have now turned up in this audit, and instead of simply saying this the government are polishing it up with making out as if there was some reason for retaining these pieces when there really wasn't. You need to put yourself in our place before you start judging the people affected.
JAE in Fermanagh wrote (920 days ago):
Its a sad case but hardly unexpected. However solicitor Paidraig O'Muiriagh mentioned the magic word on UTV news which will make every distant relative upset and offended by RUC/PSNI action; "COMPENSATION" and dare I say from a solicitors point of view a big legal aid pot. Pitty that all this will end up being about MONEY and how much family and solicitors can make out of it!
OldSod in Fermanagh wrote (920 days ago):
I have to agree with Peter from Lisburn, I actually would have always assumed that police retained tissue samples or organs like the liver etc in unsolved murder cases, simply as a matter of procedure. Would it not be a bigger scandal if the police had disposed of samples which were later required for a trial? At any rate, yes, I would think it is better to make it clear to the next of kin if samples were being retained, but I don't see what the controversy or scandal is in all of this. There is nothing illegal or sinister in all of this. Some of the police's biggest critics made whole people disappear, they are being a little hysterical.
david in belfast wrote (920 days ago):
the-psni-should-be-ashamed-of-themselfs-keeping-body-parts-i-hope-the-familys-sue-the-psni-can-the-dead-not-rest-in-peace
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