Police in Northern Ireland are facing questions tonight after confirmation they stored human body parts from people who died under suspicious circumstances without alerting families.
Relatives are now being contacted, with police acknowledging the revelation will be an “incredibly difficult time” for the families bereaved over a 40-year period.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) declined to confirm the number of cases involved, but the figure has been placed at 67, and is said to include murder cases from the Troubles.
Investigators retained human tissue and body parts as evidence from 1960 to 2005, with some held for substantial periods and without any apparent need to secure the consent of families.
Politicians responsible for overseeing policing in the region have said they are shocked by the news.
Details of a UK-wide audit by police services on the retention of such human tissue are to be published on May 21.
The PSNI said: “In 2010 the Human Tissue Authority (HTA) issued a direction asking all mortuaries holding post-mortem tissue samples to undertake an audit and report back to them.
“In order to identify a national picture, the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) advised all Chief Constables in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to conduct an audit of all human tissue held in connection with suspicious deaths and murders.
“The Police Service of Northern Ireland has a dedicated team committed to this led by Service Improvement ACC George Hamilton.
“The audit has enabled PSNI to identify and consider the most appropriate way of sensitively dealing with human tissue no longer required to be held for criminal investigations.
“Specially trained Family Liaison Officers are now visiting those families affected to inform them and to discuss with them what their options now are.”
Police added: “This is in line with the UK national guidance and in consultation with our partners.
“We know this will be an incredibly difficult time for those families involved and we will provide all the possible support we can to them.”
Members of the Northern Ireland Policing Board said the watchdog organisation would raise questions.
Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly said: “This is a shocking revelation. Our thoughts are with the families of those involved. It is my understanding that the process of informing the affected families has now begun.
“Like previously with a number of hospitals the retention of body parts and human tissue without the knowledge of families is completely unacceptable.
“It is now important that proper support mechanisms are put in place for the families involved and a proper public explanation for this practice is put forward, and assurances given that it will not happen again.”
The SDLP’s Conall McDevitt said: “It will be a major shock for many families to find out that tissue relating to loved ones has been retained without their knowledge.
“I acknowledge that the PSNI have now put systems into place to inform families, but it is really important that past practice is fully reviewed in order to understand why proper protocols do not appear to have been in place over the period in which tissue was retained.
“This is a matter I will be raising at the Policing Board and keeping a close eye on.”