We are aware of a situation in the North East of England where a number of items of human tissue, retained for criminal justice and coronial purposes over the course of the last 20 years, have been kept for longer than was necessary. We understand that an audit has been conducted by the authorities involved, and specially trained officers have been talking to the families affected.
Discovering that the samples are still in storage will clearly be upsetting for these families, and of concern to the wider public; it is important to stress that significant improvements have been made to the systems governing the retention of human tissue samples and the public can be assured that the risks of this happening again are low.
In any unexplained death, post-mortem tissue samples are taken as part of the investigation for evidential purposes and to find out the cause of death. In some cases, these samples have to be kept for significant periods of time to support the criminal investigation and fulfil legal requirements.
Although tissue which has been retained by a police force falls outside the scope of our regulation, our expertise and experience as the regulator for the post-mortem sector mean that we are often asked for advice by the relevant authorities on how to manage this process.
We have worked with the Home Office to develop police procedures on the management of human tissue, and there are clear standards and guidelines on the disposal of human tissue which HTA-licensed establishments - where these samples may be held - are expected to meet; you can read more about these in our updated Code of Practice on post-mortem examination (pdf).
We will be keeping in close contact with those involved in this case to provide any advice we can. Any members of the public who have concerns may contact us directly on 020 7269 1900, or can get in touch with the police by dialling 101, and then when prompted 36464.