Administering the last rites at crime scenes: police guidance

Following the assassination of Sir David Amess on 15 October 2021, considerable concern was expressed that a Roman Catholic priest, Father Jeffrey Woolnough, had been refused permission to pass through a police cordon to administer the sacrament of the anointing of the sick to Sir David Amess as he lay dying.

In the aftermath of Sir David’s murder, a joint group convened by Dame Cressida Dick and Cardinal Vincent Nichols met to consider the issue of pastoral care of crime victims, and the College of Policing has subsequently updated its guidelines on Managing investigations. The relevant section of the guidelines, Requests for third party access to a scene to attend a victim updated on 17 March 2022, is as follows:

“Immediately after an incident involving death or serious injury, a third party (not a member of the emergency services) may make a request to access the scene to attend the victim. This may include, for example, a priest, of the victim’s faith or religion asking to administer Last Rites or other religious needs, or a family member wanting to comfort a loved one. While these requests are likely to be rare, they can be extremely important for the victim and their family…

Such requests are likely to be relevant where the victim is known, by the third party, to still be at the scene. This would not include planned crime scene visits for family members supported by a family liaison officer. A priest, for example, who might make such a request, will be familiar with ministry to the dying.

The decision to admit third party access to a scene is an operational decision and should be made by the senior investigating officer (SIO), or an incident commander where an SIO has yet to be appointed. Where an SIO or incident commander is not available requests should be referred to a supervisor for support.

When considering such requests, decision-makers should apply the National Decision Model, and the principles set out in the College of Policing (2014) Code of Ethics. They should also consider articles 2 and 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), and whether the purpose of the request can be accommodated without the third party entering the scene, for example, standing at the edge of the scene, close to the victim.

The decision-maker must balance medical and investigative priorities and requirements, with empathy for the victim, their family and any religious needs. The following should also be considered:

    • the immediate priority to save life, administer first aid and move the victim to hospital for further treatment. These actions will be time-critical and subject to the judgement of medical personnel.
    • health and safety in and around the crime scene, including whether personal protective equipment would be required.
    • the need to secure and preserve the crime scene and the material within it (consult with the crime scene manager).
    • the complexity of the incident, the potential risk to the integrity of the investigation and the suspect’s right to a fair trial (Article 6 of the ECHR).
    • the rights and needs (including religious rights and needs) of the victim and their family (notwithstanding the status of family members in the investigation).
    • the potential effect of granting, or not granting, access to a family member.
    • the status of the family member(s) in the context of the wider incident, for example, whether a family member may also be a suspect.

Where the victim has suffered significant trauma, the family should be briefed so they can make an informed decision about seeing their loved one.

Every incident will be unique, and all decision making should be recorded with supporting rationale.”

Archbishop John Wilson of Southwark, who represented the Roman Catholic Church in the joint group, said in a statement on 31 March that he was pleased that a common position could be found, adding that “At a critical time, such spiritual and/or family support can make all the difference for those for whom it is important”.

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