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Support after Shipman: the role of Victim Support and the Witness Service - Introduction

Homicide, like any sudden death, causes unimaginable distress for the bereaved. This distress is suffered at the same time as coping with both the criminal justice procedures that follow an arrest and with the public nature of the death.

In the case of Harold Shipman, the early investigations into his patients' deaths, which were opened by the police in July 1998, were viewed with disbelief as he was a highly respected general practitioner (GP). However, the unfolding case raised questions for more and more of his patients' families2 who subsequently entered the legal picture.

Eventually, in January 2000, Shipman was found guilty of 15 counts of murder and is now serving a life sentence. However, to date, over 450 more deaths are being investigated and are the subject of a public inquiry, established under the 1921 Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act, and chaired by Dame Janet Smith DBE. The terms of reference cover: the extent of Shipman's unlawful activities; the actions of statutory bodies and authorities concerned in procedures and investigations; and the monitoring of primary care provisions and the use of controlled drugs. It is anticipated that it will take two years before a final report is ready, but it is planned that interim reports will be made available.

The following is a chronological account of the logistics of helping families in these unusual circumstances, plus a commentary on the experiences. Suggestions for best practice are also included along with suggested protocols that might usefully be followed in the event of such a case in the future. This paper is the result of a research project financed by Victim Support. The project involved interviews with the workers involved, visits to Tameside Victim Support Scheme, Preston Crown Court and Witness Service, and the Ashton Coroner's Court. At the request of Victim Support and the Witness Service, the account contains suggestions for protocols that could be followed should other homicides occur where there are multiple victims.

A separate paper has been written about the experiences of the bereaved families (Mezey, Hobdell & Evans, forthcoming), but some families were personally interviewed for this project report so that their comments could be added to this paper in the context of underscoring best practice.

This paper is dedicated to those who were bereaved in these terrible circumstances.

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