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Press response to story about retained tissues

22 November 2011


The Hillsborough Independent Panel can confirm that it has become aware during the course of its work that in ten of the post mortems carried out on those who died as a result of the Hillsborough disaster, tissue was taken for further examination and was retained. Although this was in accordance with established practice at the time and the standard procedures were followed, it has become clear since then that removal and retention of tissue in this way in many post mortems around the country has caused distress to bereaved relatives. The discovery of this information concerning the Hillsborough post mortems has led the Panel to begin to make contact with those families affected, to explain the circumstances and to ask if they would like to know the position concerning their relatives.

The Panel regards the personal details as strictly confidential to those families concerned, and not for public disclosure. Where families want to, we will discuss with them the options in relation to remaining tissue, and assist them to ensure it is dealt with respectfully in accordance with their wishes.

The Right Reverend James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool and Chair of the Hillsborough Independent Panel, said:

“I am sorry that this additional distress has been caused to some of the Hillsborough families, who have suffered greatly already. I know from my previous experience in Liverpool how much anguish has resulted from this practice. The Panel believes that it is right that affected families should have the chance to find out about this now.”

Dr Bill Kirkup, medically qualified member of the Hillsborough Independent Panel, said:

“New legislation and professional guidance have been introduced to ensure that nothing is removed from a body without the knowledge of relatives and that all body tissue is properly dealt with in accordance with relatives’ wishes. This legislation and guidance was not in place at the time of the Hillsborough post mortems, and sadly the result has been additional distress. We are dealing with this as sensitively as we can, and I hope that families’ privacy will be respected.”

Notes for editors: The practice of removing organs and tissues at post mortem examination without relatives’ knowledge or consent became the subject of deep public concern in 1998/99, initially as a result of mention of the removal of babies’ hearts during the Bristol Inquiry and subsequently following revelations about an extensive repository of organs in Alder Hey Hospital in Liverpool. It rapidly became clear that equal concern arose from the widespread practice of removing small quantities (‘blocks’) of tissue for microscopic examination as part of the investigation of cause of death.

As a result, hospitals were ordered to conduct a census of all retained human tissues, and the Retained Organs Commission was established in 2001 to oversee this process and to ensure that material was disposed of respectfully in accordance with relatives’ wishes. This process was triggered by relatives contacting hospitals to enquire about the existence of samples, in line with the widespread publicity at the time. When enquiries substantially tailed off, the Retained Organs Commission was wound up in 2004.

Taking samples of tissue for further examination is an integral part of many post mortem examinations, and when it is necessary to confirm the cause of death or to investigate other findings it is an essential part of examination. Although it was standard practice then not to inform relatives of this, legislation has since been put in place to ensure that relatives now are always informed and asked how they would like the material to be treated subsequently, and where possible are asked to consent.

Although usual practice has been to place the onus on relatives to enquire about the existence of any retained tissues, the Panel believed that in the particular circumstances surrounding those who died as a result of the Hillsborough disaster it was right to approach affected families individually and offer to share further medical information. The Panel has taken expert advice, including liaising with the Human Tissue Authority, on how best to carry out this part of its task.

The Hillsborough Independent Panel was appointed by government in January 2010 to ensure the maximum possible disclosure of documents relating to the 1989 Hillsborough disaster and to produce a report explaining how the material adds to public understanding. The Panel is chaired by the Rt Rev James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool.