Cullen clears way for inquiry to begin

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Lord Cullen, the distinguished judge who will head an inquiry into the massacre, met Scotland's chief law officer and its most senior judge yesterday to discuss the inquiry's remit.

The meeting between Lord Cullen, Lord Mackay of Drumadoon, the Lord Advocate, and Lord President Hope did not set a date for the start of the wide-reaching inquiry, but those involved are said to be keen to start as soon as possible.

The meeting was necessary because the inquiry may cover some of the same issues as the statutory Fatal Accident Inquiry which must also be held.

The accident inquiry - the equivalent of a coroner's court hearing - must be held by law in Scotland when it appears that death has resulted from an accident at work, or while a person was in legal custody, or when the Lord Advocate believes an inquiry to be in the public interest because the death was sudden, suspicious or unexpected and occurred in circumstances which give rise to serious public concern.

In Scotland, the Procurator Fiscal, the public prosecutor, investigates the circumstances and applies to a local sheriff to hold an inquiry. The Procurator Fiscal is also responsible for investigating sudden death.

As part of his inquiry, the sheriff is allowed to consider if there were precautions which might have been taken so that death could have been avoided. He can look at any facts relevant to the case. The sheriff sits alone, although he may appoint a specialist assessor to assist, and he hears evidence in public. There is no jury.

Lord Cullen, 60, who presided over the 1988 inquiry into the Piper Alpha disaster, became a court of session and High Court judge 10 years ago. He has just spent a week considering whether a Scottish hospital can lawfully withdraw treatment from a woman patient who has been in a coma for three years.

His cool-headed intelligence has won him many admirers. There was widespread praise for the handling of the Piper Alpha inquiry which took 13 months and resulted in a comprehensive 800-page document. The report is regarded as one of the finest documents produced for a government on such a complicated issue, and 106 of his recommendations were accepted.

In his inquiry into the events at Dunblane he is expected to consider the adequacy of current firearms legislation, including the granting of firearm certificates, and details concerning the background of the killer Thomas Hamilton.