Pathology, forensics merger calls
Merging pathology and forensic services in Northern Ireland into a single overarching body could address recurring delays in reporting post-mortem results, inspectors have said.
The scientific quality of the State Pathology Department's work is good but the organisation continues to be beset with issues around timeliness of reporting and its business management and accountability practices, the Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJI) found.
Noting inter-agency strains between agencies involved in pathology and forensic work, the CJI's chief inspector Brendan McGuigan said it might be time to consider a more radical solution to problems first flagged up around a decade ago.
Inspectors said the creation of a new body incorporating Forensic Science NI, the scientific department of the PSNI and the State Pathologist's Department (SPD) would "consolidate delivery reducing the propensity to blame one agency or another for systematic failings and sub-optimal outcomes".
Mr McGuigan, who has published the CJI's latest report on pathology services in the region, said the amalgamation could be done on a phased basis.
The SPD carried out 1,176 post-mortems last year.
"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," said Mr McGuigan.
"It is also vital in helping relatives and friends establish the circumstances around a loved one's death, where it is unexpected or suspicious."
He added: "Inspectors found the standard of the service to be good and the quality and detail of the reports provided to be high. Clinical standards were met and specialist input included as required.
"While this is reassuring, 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.
"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. Silo working needs to be addressed in tandem with greater flexibility to better facilitate the timely production of reports."
Mr McGuigan said internal governance and business processes within the State Pathologist's Department required improvement.
"CJI was concerned to find that nine years after publishing its first inspection of the State Pathologist's Department, many of the issues identified concerning governance and accountability in CJI's original 2005 report still existed," said the chief inspector.
"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."
In response to the report, Stormont Justice Minister David Ford said he would consider pathology services in an ongoing review of how to improve forensic service delivery in Northern Ireland.
"I am pleased that the report acknowledges the high quality and detail of the reports produced by the State Pathologist's Department," he said.
"Those reports assist coroners in establishing the cause of death and assisting with police investigations where necessary.
"The inspectors have highlighted the importance of reports being produced in a timely way. 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. Consideration of forensic pathology services will be included within that review to ensure that those services best meet the needs of the justice system."