The Lord Advocate has apologised to the families of five people who died in a Western Isles flood for the “unacceptable” way they were treated after the tragedy.
He said the relatives of Archie and Murdina Macpherson, their two children and Mrs Macpherson’s father Calum Campbell, should not have had to wait 12 years to discover if there would be fatal accident inquiry (FAI).
James Wolffe, Scotland’s top prosecutor, admitted his “deep disappointment” at a series of delays which caused them “further distress”.
Relatives of the tragic families revealed last night that at one point they had been told by prosecutors they were “too busy” to deal with the case.
The Macphersons, their two children, five-year-old Hannah and seven-year-old Andrew, and Mr Campbell, died as the family attempted to escape a huge storm in South Uist on January 11, 2005.
Travelling in two cars to the house of Mr Macpherson’s parents David and Mary, they were swept from the road into the sea near their home at Iochdar.
It is widely believed that the South Ford causeway – a key route which runs more than half a mile between the islands of Benbecula and South Uist – had acted as a dam, with the built-up water eventually overflowing into nearby villages and submerging local roads at Iochdar, including the one the Macphersons were driving on.
Ever since, the Western Isles Council and the Scottish Government have been under pressure to take action to ensure the disaster could never be repeated by opening up the causeway to create a bridge section.
However, more than a decade on, little progress has been made.
A series of delays to the processing of the case by the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service have now emerged in a letter written by the Lord Advocate to Western Isles MP Angus MacNeil.
Such deaths are normally reported to the procurator fiscal by the police within a day or two, but it took until February 10, 2005 – one month after the tragedy – for the Crown Office to be officially notified.
In his letter, the Lord Advocate said: “It is not clear why it took until then for the deaths to be reported.”
Further progress on the case was not made until March 2007 when a comprehensive report was sent to Crown Office, with the delay put down to “the number of serious criminal cases being dealt with in Stornoway at that stage”.
The Crown Office then decided to wait until after the publication of a report on the causeway before deciding if there should be an FAI.
The study was finally produced in 2012 – finding that opening up the causeway and installing an 820ft bridge section would have “significantly alleviated” flooding during the January 2005 storm.
But due to an “administrative failure” there was still no progress on the case until March 2015, when prosecutors met family members again.
In October last year, it was decided not to hold an FAI on the grounds that it would not provide information about the cause of the deaths “which had not already been addressed by the comprehensive study”.
But in his letter, the Lord Advocate expressed his “deep disappointment” about the length of time it took to deal with the case.
He added: “Whilst I believe it was correct to wait for the conclusion of the hydrodynamic study before deciding the question of a fatal accident inquiry, the investigation of these tragic deaths was not completed as expeditiously as it should have been and was characterised by delays which I regard as unacceptable.
“That will inevitably have caused further distress to the family and I have written to them to express my sincere apologies for that.”
Angus MacIntyre, the brother-in-law of the tragic couple who died in the storm, said last night that the families would not stop fighting for an FAI.
He said: “At the time of the accident the procurator fiscal came over and met with both families. We mentioned an FAI at the time and he said he would get back to us.
“Then he said he had instructed this survey to be completed and once he had the findings presented he would write a report to the Crown Office.
“It sounded like it would all be a formality. But the report took seven years to complete.
“A bit of time went past and it was coming up to the 10th anniversary when myself and David Macpherson (Archie’s father) went to meet the procurator fiscal again.
“We asked how the report was getting on. He said ‘I’ve been busy, do you know we’ve had a murder?’.”
Mr MacIntyre added: “I think they thought we would probably have gone away by now but we’re still knocking on the door, asking why we can’t have an FAI.
“If an FAI was to say that the road flooded because of the causeway, surely that would strengthen the case for the bridge.
“We want for that to happen so that nothing like this happens again.”