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ACPO publishes report into the retention of human tissue by police forces

21 May 2012

The police service has today published a report into the retention of human tissue following suspicious death or homicide investigations by police forces in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

There were 492 samples of human tissue within the scope of the audit, held by, or on behalf of police in police premises, hospital mortuaries or other establishments. The nationwide audit was coordinated by the ACPO lead for forensic pathology, Deputy Chief Constable Debbie Simpson.

Deputy Chief Constable Debbie Simpson said:

“The police service has a duty of care towards the families of those who die in suspicious circumstances or in homicide cases, to ensure such cases are fully investigated while loved ones are treated with dignity and compassion.

“While policing falls outside of the Human Tissue Act, and in each individual case there will be particular reasons why a tissue sample may be taken and then retained as part of an investigation, it is clear that this is an area where the police service needs to work with criminal justice partners including coroners, pathologists and defence experts to ensure that we adopt and follow good practise.

“Protecting the interests of families affected has been central to this audit process. I will continue to work with our partners on behalf of the police service to ensure that we address the recommendations within this report.”

Medical Secretary of the Coroners Society of England and Wales, Dr Roy Palmer, said:

"The findings of this report illustrate the problems that arise when the purposes and the appropriate authority for retaining human material at forensic autopsy are less than clear. Families affected by the findings of this report are likely to have faced renewed upset in learning that material may have been retained without their knowledge but this review is an important step in assessing and understanding the current picture nationally and provides police services, pathologists and coroners with an opportunity to learn how to improve our processes.

"Coroners have played an active part in this audit and have worked closely with other agencies to understand what material has been retained and whether it is still needed. The Coroners Society welcomes the ACPO audit as it reinforces the duty on investigation authorities to advise the coroner at the time of human material retention."

A full copy of the report can be found at

All holdings of human tissue for criminal justice purposes are outside the scope of the Human Tissue Act but are often held on licensed premises which are subject to the Act’s provisions. In 2010 the Human Tissue Authority’s requested, as part of their audit of all tissue holdings at licensed premises, that samples were checked to ensure that they were being retained with the appropriate authority, for example from the police or coroner.

As a result of the HTA audit, West Mercia Police instigated its own review of human tissue materials held in a local hospital under police powers (and therefore outside the scope of the HTA). As it became clear that other police forces were in similar positions, the approach was then widened, through ACPO, so that the police service across England, Wales and Northern Ireland could conduct a nationwide audit.

Scottish forces did not take part in the audit as because evidence in Scottish criminal cases is held on the authority of the Procurator Fiscal and not the police. The Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service were informed of this audit.

Each item had to be examined individually so that a decision could be taken on whether ongoing retention was required for criminal justice purposes. Forces decided on a case by case basis whether an item should continue to be held or disposed of, and where appropriate notified next of kin.

The scope of this audit was defined as Category 3 items of human tissue under Home Office guidance available here. These are samples of human issue that incorporate significant parts of the body and whole organs.

For more information please contact:

ACPO Press Office
Association of Chief Police Officers