Scroll down for information and advice on things that often happen in the first few days after a fatal crash.
This includes information about your police contact; seeing and identifying a body; post-mortem examinations; return of belongings; and finding out what happened in the crash, and what happens to vehicles involved in the crash.
Your right to support from criminal justice agencies
It is best practice for the police to assign a Family Liaison Officer (FLO) to you. An FLO is a police officer trained to help bereaved people with procedures immediately following the crash and during the police investigation. If you are not assigned an FLO, ask if this is possible. Whether or not your police contact is an FLO, they should be able to help you with immediate things such as seeing a loved one’s body and answering, where possible, questions you have about the crash. Your police contact should also be able to keep you informed of the police investigation and any court dates and help you manage any contact with the media.
Your entitlement to support from the police and other criminal justice agencies is outlined in the Government’s Code of Practice for Victims of Crime (2015).
Police guidelines called the Authorised Professional Practice (APP) also state that the police should provide you with the pack you are reading now and tell you about the Brake helpline, which you can contact for additional specialist support on 0808 8000 401. Police standards when liaising with you are also laid out in the Family Liaison Officer Guidance.
All three guidance documents can be downloaded from www.brake.org.uk/support or ask your police contact.
Organ and tissue donation
You may or may not want to consider donation of organs or tissue from a loved one’s body to help others live. Donation of organs is only possible if a loved one died in hospital, but donation of tissue or corneas may be possible after a death at the roadside.
If you want to consider donation, but haven’t been contacted by medical staff, you need to act quickly – usually within 24 hours although sometimes up to 48 hours after the death. For organ donation call 0300 123 23 23. For tissue donation call the Tissues National Referral Centre on 0800 432 0559.
If someone died in England
If the person who died had expressed their wish to donate by joining the NHS Organ Donor Register, then medical staff will not legally need anyone’s consent to do this. From Spring 2020, the law around organ and tissue donation in England is changing, and organ donation will move to an ‘opt out’ system. This means that all adults in England will be considered to have agreed to be an organ donor when they die, unless they have recorded a decision not to donate.
If someone died in Wales
If the person who died was living in Wales, there is an ‘opt-out’ system for organ donation. This is also known as ‘deemed consent’. This means that all adults in Wales will be considered to have agreed to be an organ donor when they die, unless they have recorded a decision not to donate.
A specialist nurse who deals with organ or tissue donation will still want to talk to close relatives to make sure they support their loved one’s decision. The faiths and beliefs of the person who has died will always be respected.
Organs or tissue are removed with care and do not delay burial or cremation arrangements. You can still see a loved one’s body afterwards if you choose.
The opt-out system does not apply to children under the age of 18. If a decision about organ or tissue donation is required for someone under 18, the family will be asked to make that decision.
The decision about whether or not to become an organ donor is a personal one. For more information about organ and tissue donation, go to www.organdonation.nhs.uk.
Seeing a loved one’s body
After someone dies suddenly or unexpectedly, their body is taken to a hospital mortuary or a local authority mortuary.
You can decide whether or not to see a loved one's body. To help you make this decision, and if you didn't see a loved one in hospital or at the roadside before their death, you can ask your police contact or medical staff to tell you about injuries to a loved one's body and what their body looks like.
Sometimes, the bodies of people killed in road crashes have few visible injuries because injuries are internal. Sometimes bodies are very badly damaged. If a body is badly damaged, medical staff may cover the most damaged areas with a sheet. You can ask which areas of a body will be covered or uncovered. Sometimes the whole body is very badly damaged. Sometimes a body is a different colour, due to internal bleeding or bruising.
You may choose to see a loved one's body to say goodbye. Or you may choose to remember someone as they were. The decision is yours. You can take your time to decide. If a loved one's body is in a hospital, there may be a bereavement officer or hospital chaplain who can support you at this time. You can ask if this support is available.
Touching a loved one’s body
If you decide to see a loved one's body, you may wish to touch their body. If you want to do this, talk to your police contact or medical staff. Sometimes, bodies of people killed in road crashes are very delicate because they are damaged, or bodies should not be touched for reasons to do with a police investigation. If you touch a loved one's body, it may help to remember their body will feel cold.
Identifying a loved one’s body
The police sometimes require a family member to identify a person who has died. If the police ask you to do this, they may ask you to identify your loved one's body or identify them from their belongings. If you do not want to see a loved one's body but you are asked to identify their body, ask the police if there is anyone else who could do this for you. Alternatively, you may be able to identify the body through an internal glass window (at the mortuary), or by photograph or by video recording. In rarer instances, a body is harder to identify due to injuries sustained. In this case, police may ask you to help identify a loved one through dental records or by providing a sample of their DNA (for example, from a hairbrush or toothbrush).
After someone dies on the road, there is likely to be a post-mortem examination of their body. This is a medical examination to determine the cause of death. A post mortem includes examination of body organs, tissues and fluids and is carried out by a specialist doctor called a pathologist.
A post-mortem examination is carried out on behalf of the coroner. The coroner is a special judge who investigates all sudden deaths. The coroner does not need your permission to carry out a post mortem but you can ask the coroner’s office to explain why they think it is necessary.
Usually the coroner asks the pathologist to open and examine inside the body. The body is then closed again. This is called an invasive autopsy. Some people have objections, for faith or other reasons, to an invasive autopsy. If you have objections, or concerns about the way it will be carried out, you should tell the coroner's office or your police contact as soon as possible so they can take into account your views. Alternatives to invasive autopsy are not widely available, but sometimes a body can be scanned instead. Scans do not physically damage the body. If you request a scan, you may be asked to pay a fee.
Usually a post-mortem examination includes toxicology tests. This means that the pathologist takes samples of blood and urine, and possibly other samples such as stomach contents, fluid from an eye and pieces of tissue, to find out if they contain any toxic substances, such as alcohol or drugs. These tests may take place instead of, or in addition to, an invasive autopsy or scan.
Your police contact can tell you how to get in touch with the coroner's office.
Representation at a post-mortem examination and second post mortems
You are legally entitled to be represented by a medical professional during a post-mortem examination. Your representative could be a GP or another pathologist of your choice. If you have told the coroner that you wish to be represented, your police contact should tell you when and where the post-mortem examination is taking place.
If you are not satisfied with the information you receive about the cause of death, you may be able to ask for a second post-mortem examination, carried out privately for you by a pathologist of your choice, and funded by you. This requires the agreement of the coroner.
If you have a solicitor they will be able to instruct a pathologist on your behalf and advise you of the cost.
In some instances a second post-mortem examination may be requested to be carried out on behalf of someone who is accused of a criminal offence in connection with the death. This requires the agreement of the coroner. All requests for second post-mortems will be examined very carefully.
Organ or tissue samples
Most post-mortem examinations involve taking small tissue samples, known as 'tissue blocks'. These are less than six millimetres thick and are embedded in wax or resin. From them, very small amounts of tissue, thinner than a hair, are placed on glass slides so they can be examined under a microscope. These slides help confirm the cause of death. Taking tissue samples does not disfigure a body. A pathologist may need to retain an organ temporarily, so they can examine it closely. The nearest relative will be informed.
After the post-mortem examination you can decide if any retained tissue or organs should be reunited with the body, which may mean you have to delay a burial or cremation. You can proceed with a burial or cremation earlier and arrange for any retained tissue or organs to be disposed of by the pathologist in a respectful way. Your police contact should explain these options to you and discuss what you want to do. Sometimes medical staff want to keep tissue samples for research, education or training purposes. They can only do this with the agreement of the person who died (if they were an adult) or their nearest relative.
The law on organ and tissue retention is explained in the Human Tissue Act 2004, available to download at www.brake.org.uk/support. The coroner or the pathologist can provide more information about your case.
Delays to a burial or cremation
A burial or cremation can only take place once the coroner has given permission for the body to be released. To find out how long a post-mortem examination will take, or if you have objections to a burial or cremation being delayed, talk to the coroner's office or your police contact.
The post-mortem examination report
You are entitled to a copy of a loved one's post-mortem examination report, usually for free. You may or may not want to see it. The coroner's office can arrange for it to be sent to your GP who can help explain it. A pathologist may also be able to meet with you at their offices to discuss the report. Sometimes you cannot have the report until after any criminal proceedings are finished.
If a loved one died before emergency services reached them, the pathologist may be able to tell you information, if you want to know, regarding your loved one’s death, for example how fast they lost consciousness.
Return of a loved one’s personal belongings
The police, hospital officials or mortuary staff may be holding personal belongings of a loved one who has died, such as a bag, mobile phone, clothes or jewellery. You can ask if they are holding any belongings. You may decide you want all, some or none of them returned. If you are using a funeral director, you can ask them to collect any personal belongings for you when they collect the body.
Personal belongings, particularly clothes, are often damaged or blood-stained in crashes. Before deciding if you want certain belongings, you may want to ask about the condition of them.
If you want something returned that has been blood-stained, you can choose whether you want it returning just as it is, or cleaned first. Some people don't want a loved one's clothes cleaned because the clothes may carry the smell of that person. Some clothes may be very badly damaged and you may want them cleaned or not returned at all. The police may or may not charge you a fee for any cleaning you want them to do.
If a loved one who has died was in a vehicle, you can ask your police contact to check if any belongings are still in that vehicle (for example, in the boot or glove compartment of a car) and ask for these to be returned to you.
Sometimes belongings are kept temporarily by the police because they need them as evidence as part of their investigation. Once the police investigation and any resulting criminal prosecution is finished, these belongings can be returned if you want them. Belongings should not be disposed of by police, medical or mortuary staff without consent.
A police manual called Family Liaison Officer Guidance advises the police to consult with you about the return of belongings. You can view this guidance at www.brake.org.uk/support.
Many people treasure the smell of a loved one who died. You may wish to preserve their smell for a while by storing clothing they recently wore in an odour-free zip-locked bag.
Visiting the crash site
If you were not in the crash, you may or may not want to visit the place it happened. If you want to visit, your police contact can tell you the precise location if you do not know it and tell you any dangers such as parking problems, lack of pedestrian access or fast traffic. They may be able to accompany you to ensure your safety and answer questions you may have about the site.
If the crash site is far away and not accessible by public transport, your police contact or someone else may be able to drive you there. You may want them to do this if you do not drive, do not feel able to drive because of the shock, or you can't drive because your vehicle was damaged in the crash.
You may or may not want to place flowers or something else at the crash site.
How did a loved one die?
If you were not in the crash yourself, you may or may not want to know the details of how a loved one died. You may want to know about medical treatment given at the roadside or in a hospital, and whether a loved one said anything or was unconscious during this time.
Sometimes it is possible to meet and talk to people who provided help at the crash site, such as a paramedic or a fire officer, or members of the public who provided first aid. If you want to do this, your police contact will be able to find out if this is possible. Alternatively, your police contact may be able to ask these people questions on your behalf.
If a loved one died in hospital you can ask to talk to doctors or nurses who provided treatment. The Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS) can help you do this. You can contact this service through a hospital switchboard. Alternatively, your GP may be able to find out about treatment given and explain it to you.
You can also, if you are the next of kin, get a copy of a medical report prepared by the hospital on treatment given. This can be requested by you or your solicitor and there may be a fee. This report may use medical terms unfamiliar to you, so you may want to ask a hospital doctor or your GP to explain it to you. You may not be able to get full details of treatment until after the coroner’s investigations into the death are finished.
If you have a concern that a hospital treated your loved one inadequately, you may wish to consult a personal injury solicitor. In some cases, a medical negligence claim can be brought.
Why did the crash happen?
It is common to want to know straight away what happened and who was involved.
The police will carry out an investigation into the crash and collect evidence. If it appears that someone may have committed an offence, criminal charges may then be brought. You can ask your police contact questions and seek information from them at any time during their investigation.
If a solicitor is working on your behalf to find out if you can claim compensation they will need information from the police (including names of people involved, witness statements, and evidence such as photographs). It is important that your solicitor requests and gets information as soon as possible.
The Crown Prosecution Service (the agency that brings prosecutions) has guidelines saying information should be released promptly. However, in some cases, for legal reasons, some information may not be released until after an investigation or a prosecution has happened.
The Crown Prosecution Service guidelines on 'disclosure of material to third parties' are part of its guiding documents called Prosecution Guidance. This can be read online at www.cps.gov.uk.
What happens to a vehicle involved in the crash?
If a person who died was in a vehicle or on a motorbike or bicycle, it should be taken away for examination by the police along with any other vehicles involved in the crash. The police examine vehicles involved in fatal crashes to find out if they were mechanically defective, and to get more information about what happened in the crash.
Vehicles may be kept until the end of the police investigation and any resulting criminal prosecution. Sometimes the police have to take vehicles apart to find out what happened. Your police contact can tell you where vehicles are being stored and what is happening to a vehicle. If you were not in the crash, you may want to see a vehicle. You can ask your police contact to arrange this. Many vehicles involved in crashes are very badly damaged, although some are not. Ask your police contact to tell you in advance what a vehicle will look like.
You can pay for an independent examination of a vehicle if you or your solicitor think this is necessary. If you wish to do this, tell your police contact. A list of crash investigators is available from the website www.itai.org.
You can ask your police contact questions at any time during the police investigation. They may not have much information at first and may not be able to tell you certain things until their investigation is complete, but should tell you as much as they can.