In recent days it has been reported that the Muslim Judicial Council (MJC) is calling community members to sign an online petition urging the Western Cape Government Health to expedite the release of Muslim post mortem cases within a 24-hour period. While the Department is committed to support the Muslim faith’s “hasten to bury” practice, it is not currently able to effect the release of decedents within 24 hours. Understandably this may lead to misunderstanding and frustration in the community and the Department wishes to clarify some essential facts in this matter.
In the case of an unnatural death, the law demands a medico-legal investigation of death which include a post-mortem examination. Thus the practice of any prioritisation must be balanced with the prioritisation for legal and clinical priorities, such as the gathering of evidence for medico-legal cases (e.g. rape cases). The essential mandate of Forensic Pathology Service (FPS) is to conduct medico-legal investigation into unnatural deaths, in support of the justice system. The quality of this investigation forms the basis of the medico-legal investigation and needs to be intact and stand up to scrutiny. The right to justice and a proper investigation are rights afforded to all citizens, and prioritisation needs to be weighed with this in mind.
Many people may not be aware that the only cases affected are only those pertaining to unnatural deaths as per definition and this includes procedure related deaths. This “delay” does not affect any person who dies a natural death as these cases are not admitted to the FPS, in which case burial may proceed as required.Despite recent interventions of appointing more staff (six Forensic Pathology Officers; and a sessional Medical Officer and two Registrars), the Department has not been able to maintain a 24-hour release period, as preferred for Muslim decedents. The forensic pathology service remains under pressure, as is the case with the whole health system nationally. The burden of disease, and particularly violent deaths, takes its toll on the resources at our disposal. For the Metro alone, FPS performed medico-legal investigations of death on the remains of 8023 individuals between January 2017 and December 2017 and an average of 18 autopsies are performed daily. Currently the average turnaround time from admission to release is 9.4 days (with 47.5% of cases being release after 5 days); whereas Muslim decedents are released between 3.25 and 4.21 days. While the department remains committed to try its utmost to serve the Muslim community, it remains impossible to guarantee a 24 hours release of bodies. This is not due to lack of understanding of the issue, but due to the pressing needs of the medico-legal investigation into unnatural deaths, which remains the ultimate priority for FPS.
The Department welcomes the positive role taken by the MJC in meeting with us and trying to represent the views and needs of the community. An example of this positive relationship was when the community expressed their need for a dependable and reliable release date of bodies. Thus the Department has been at pains to stay in touch with families, communicating regularly and encouraging contact with our two Metro mortuaries. We have also urged family members to respond promptly when called to identify relatives. This can expedite the process.
On behalf of FPS, I would like to assure the public of our commitment to delivering a good service in the communities we serve.
For queries family member can get in touch with our two mortuaries:
• Salt River: 021- 447 4915
• Tygerberg: 021 – 931 9140
Dr Beth Engelbrecht
Head of Health
Western Cape Government Health