Good quality Forensic Pathology Service needs reformed business practices

A Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJI) report on the State Pathologist's Department has found the standard of service to be good, but has identified significant issues around the timeliness of completing reports and the administration and business processes underpinning this important 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.  It is also vital in helping relatives and friends establish the circumstances around a loved one's death, where it is unexpected or suspicious," said Brendan McGuigan, Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland.
"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," said Mr McGuigan.
"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 indicated internal governance and business processes within the State Pathologist's Department also 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 making two recommendations for improvement, Mr McGuigan said he believed there was an opportunity to consider a more radical and imaginative solution which, if pursued with purpose and vigour, would improve the effectiveness and efficiency of this service.
"We have recommended the State Pathologist's Department should be included within the Department of Justice's forthcoming strategic review and considered within any proposal to consolidate forensic services for Northern Ireland.  This would reduce the tendency for criminal justice partners to attribute systematic failings to one another."
The Chief Inspector continued: "We have also recommended the post of State Pathologist should be assessed with a view to reducing the administrative functions currently attached to it 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.