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100 families told body parts kept

More than 100 families whose loved ones died in suspicious circumstances buried them not knowing they were missing some of their body parts or tissue, an inquiry has revealed.

Over a six-month period, Avon and Somerset police officers have been examining files relating to 1,079 cases, including murder and manslaughter inquiries.

Today the force said that organs or tissue of around 110 people were retained following post-mortem examinations over the past 25 years.

The revelation comes after the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) requested an audit into organs that had been held as evidence to be carried out by all police forces.

A spokeswoman for Acpo said Avon and Somerset is one of the first forces to complete the audit and most others have not yet disclosed their findings.

Over the last few weeks officers from Avon and Somerset have been visiting families and they now say they are confident all those affected have been contacted.

In a joint statement, Avon coroner Maria Voisin and Assistant Chief Constable Rod Hansen said: "We understand that this may be very upsetting for families who have been affected and are providing all the support we can to help them at this difficult time.

"Specially trained family liaison officers have personally visited each family to explain the situation and give guidance about what this actually means.

"If your family has not had such a visit, then you can be assured that you are not affected by this matter."

Organs and other tissue samples taken were from deaths prior to September 2006 when a change in the law meant that relatives had to be informed of any body parts that were retained.

Avon and Somerset police said when a suspicious or unexplained death occurs they have a duty to take every possible step to establish the cause of death, which routinely involves the retention of material taken from bodies at post-mortem examinations.

"Sometimes further analysis of tissue is also important in the ensuing criminal investigation and may be a critical evidential factor in bringing an offender to justice," Ms Voisin and Mr Hansen said.

"Examination by experts such as neuropathologists and defence counsel teams can take a long time and, in criminal cases, tissue evidence may also have to be preserved for longer so that it is available in the event of an appeal or a legal challenge."

The force said most of the families visited have been generally appreciative of their approach to the sensitive matter and their rationale behind it.

In 2010, the Human Tissue Authority (HTA) audited all licensed medical establishments to assess samples retained by them.

Avon and Somerset police said samples held by police for the prevention, detection or prosecution of crime do not fall under the Human Tissue Act.

However, following the HTA audit, Acpo called for an audit of human tissue samples held among police forces and coroner services.