A police officer “unilaterally” released a car involved in a fatal crash which killed a couple without the approval of their families or the prosecution service, an inquiry has heard.
A fatal accident inquiry (FAI) is currently taking place at Falkirk Sheriff Court into the deaths of John Yuill, 28, and Lamara Bell, 25, after their car came off the M9 motorway near Stirling on July 5, 2015.
They lay in the car for three days – with Ms Bell still alive – before they were found after a police officer failed to log a call by a member of the public to 101.
Inspector Andrew Thomson, 49, gave evidence to the inquiry on Wednesday concerning the disposal of the crashed Renault Clio.
The qualified road death investigator took over as senior investigating officer of the crash on July 14, 2015.
The Yuill family’s lawyer, Brian McConnachie KC, told the inquiry Mr Thomson visited the family in August – around 41 days after receiving the news that Mr Yuill had died in a crash and had lain undiscovered for three days.
Mr McConnachie asked Mr Thomson if it came as “any surprise” to him the family were, at that stage, “not terribly interested” in what happened to the vehicle.
Mr Thomson replied: “No.”
The lawyer then asked if any notes had been taken at the meeting.
Mr Thomson said there had not as it was not “common practice” to take notes at such meetings.
Mr McConnachie asked: “Where did you get your information from?”
Mr Thomson replied: “My own recollection.”
Mr McConnachie responded: “That’s all we’ve got to go on? Your recollection.”
He then put it to Mr Thomson that there did not seem to have been much “urgency to dispose of this car” on his part between August 2015 and April 2017, and Mr McConnachie suggested the “only reason” action had been taken was because someone had emailed asking about the vehicle.
Mr McConnachie said: “On April 11, 2017 you were contacted with a view to what was to happen, if anything, to the vehicle.
“Up until that time, there does not appear to have been any discussion with members of the family about the vehicle.”
Mr Thomson replied: “That’s correct, yes.”
Documents disclosed to the inquiry showed Mr Thomson had emailed the procurator fiscal service to seek guidance on what should happen with the car and referenced the FAI that the vehicle would be the subject of “in the near future”.
Mr Thomson said he wanted to ensure the procurator fiscal was aware of the situation.
He claimed he did not receive any reply back on action to be taken on the car.
Asking Mr Thomson what had changed between April 2017 and when the car was destroyed, Mr McConnachie said: “I presume you had the telephone number for the procurator fiscal’s death department?
“Why didn’t you follow up with any telephone calls or emails?
“Unilaterally, you made the decision yourself.
“You didn’t think to go back to Gordon Yuill and ask if he was happy for the car to be released?”
Mr Thomson said he took the decision to release the car, but not the decision to take it to be destroyed.
“If it was your decision to release then why didn’t you release to the family?, Mr McConnachie asked.
The inquiry heard Mr Thomson had been in contact with Ms Bell’s family about the car disposal, but, legally, they had no say over what was to happen as the car did not belong to them.
Later on Wednesday, the inquiry heard from former Police Scotland assistant chief constable Michael McCormick, who retired in 2015.
He was responsible for managing the transition of the ICT system from the eight legacy police forces in Scotland when they merged in April 2013.
The inquiry heard the systems were merged not just for efficiency and savings, but for business improvement too.
The intention was, Mr McCormick told the inquiry, that calls to 101 would be picked up by the “next available caller” to save time, rather than as close to the incident location as possible.
The FAI comes after the family of Ms Bell was awarded more than £1 million in damages from Police Scotland in a civil settlement in December 2021.
Three months previously, the force was fined £100,000 at the High Court in Edinburgh after it pleaded guilty to health and safety failings which “materially contributed” to Ms Bell’s death.
The then chief constable, Sir Iain Livingstone, apologised to the families following the court case.
The inquiry, before Sheriff James Williamson, continues.