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Family trapped in grief over lack of forensics investigators

The parents of Nuria Sajjad, one of two eight-year-old girls who died when a Land Rover ploughed into their end-of-term party last July, are still waiting for answers.

Smera Chohan took one final photo with her daughter moments before the crash at a school in Wimbledon, south-west London. She said she has suffered with survivor’s guilt every second since Nuria’s death.

“We were taking a photo together. I didn’t save my girl, I didn’t move fast enough. I didn’t run because I wasn’t expecting a car to plough through the playground,” she told i.

A woman arrested on suspicion of causing death by dangerous driving was released under investigation but the family have not had a further update on the case, with the Met confirming it has been delayed due to a lack of specialist forensic investigators.

The UK’s largest police force has fewer forensic collision investigators than those a fraction of its size, i can reveal. Comprised of more than 46,000 officers and staff, the Met has just 11 forensic collision investigators to investigate around 100 fatal collisions a year and an equal number of incidents involving serious injury.

It comes as experts warns of a wider crisis in forensic services that has been linked to figures showing a rise in crimes that are going unsolved.

Ms Chohan and her husband Sajjad Butt were both at The Study Prep School on 6 July last year when a driver in a Land Rover ploughed through the primary school’s fence and on to the lawn where the children, parents and teachers had gathered for an end of term prize-giving ceremony.

Ms Chohan was badly injured in the crash. Nuria, the couple’s kind-hearted and generous “miracle” daughter, was killed.

Sajjad Butt and Smera Chohan with their daughter Nuria (Photo: Supplied)
Sajjad Butt and Smera Chohan with their daughter Nuria (Photo: Supplied)
Source: Sajjad Butt and Smera Chohan
Nuria Sajjad, eight, was killed when a driver in a Land Rover ploughed into her school, The Study Prep, in Wimbledon (Photo: Supplied
Nuria Sajjad was due to go on holiday to Tenerife for the first time the summer she was killed (Photo: Supplied)

Ten months on from that devastating day, the parents, along with those of eight-year-old Selena Lau’s, who was also killed, do not know what led to their daughters’ tragic deaths.

“There isn’t a path forward,” Mr Butt, who suffered PTSD, told i. “It is very apparent that I can’t move forward until this case progresses.”

Ms Chohan, who suffered multiple broken bones, has undergone four surgeries in 10 months. Having required a wheelchair in the aftermath of the incident and 24 pills a day, she is now at the stage of physical recovery where the titanium used to repair her fractures has begun to “knit” together with her bones.

While their recoveries have met significant milestones, the family and others affected by the crash feel the Met’s investigation has not.

In the absence of official answers, Mr Butt, who witnessed another victim get hit by the car, said grieving relatives have begun to “fill the void of information with all manner of gossip, rumour and we can conjure all these horrific circumstances in our minds”.

A lawyer representing many of the victims were suffering from survivor’s guilt and replaying what happened over and over.

Nuria Sajjad, was one of two eight-year-old girls killed when a driver in a Land Rover crashed into their school grounds in July last year (Photo: Supplied)
Nuria’s parents said everything she loved, including tennis, she did with an ‘absolute passion’ (Photo: Supplied) Source: Sajjad Butt and Smera Chohan

Trevor Sterling, senior partner at Moore Barlow, said: “They’re all asking questions around how this occurred. And if the system doesn’t deliver those answers quickly, then it’s incredibly traumatic because until they can piece together exactly what happened, they’re left to try and work it out for themselves.”

Mr Sterling, who has written to both the Met Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley and Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, said there should be factual confirmation there was nothing more the victims could have done.

“What the Met police have done is left this traumatised, grieving community to pick up the pieces, not being able to answer any questions for their children [and] to manage their own trauma and guilt,” Ms Chohan said.

In their quest for answers Mr Butt and Ms Chohan asked the Met if the forensic collision investigation could be outsourced to another force or specialist private contractors but this route was rejected.

The Met reportedly said it considered outsourcing but decided against it. Its rationale for not involving the private sector was “if they proceeded down that route, it wouldn’t have expedited matters”, Mr Sterling said.

Smera Chohan and her daughter Nuria (Photo: Supplied)
Smera Chohan has suffered with survivor’s guilt after being ‘left in limbo’ waiting for answers 10 months after her daughter was killed (Photo: Supplied)

“I find that exceedingly difficult to believe,” Mr Butt said. “It is unacceptable that there is a shortage of qualified technical specialists to deal with something that happens all the time.”

The family’s lawyer has called for collisions involving child fatalities to be prioritised, but Sir Mark said this approach would leave other victims waiting even longer.

Mr Sterling said: “If not expedited, then one has to look at other resources. An alternative would have been to have outsourced the forensic examiner part of it.

“The solution is not a six year training course where there’s a 20 per cent uptake of individuals on that six year training course. That not an answer.”

Sir Mark has said the only path to qualify as an FCI in the UK is a six-year, part-time course from De Montfort University.

In a letter to Mr Sterling at the start of this month, Sir Mark said the Met anticipates the second and final collision report to be produced and submitted to the CPS before the end of April.

Following this, those impacted by crash which devastated a tight-knit village community will await the CPS’s decision on whether or not the driver will be charged with any criminal offence.

Nuria’s parents, who said some of her gifts from her eight birthday in March last year remain unwrapped, are determined to protect her legacy by fighting for answers.

Ms Chohan said: “Nuria and Selena deserved to live and their lives were snatched away from them, so in their death they deserve more respect.”

The Met has been contacted for comment.

In a previous statement given to the BBC, Detective Chief Superintendent Clair Kelland, in charge of policing for south-west London, said: “Our thoughts remain with the families of Nuria and Selena who we know are greatly loved and missed.

“This was a tragic incident and we understand that the families want and need answers as to what happened. We are continuing to give them specialist support through our dedicated family liaison officers who are providing updates on the investigation where they can.

“Specialist detectives have worked tirelessly to establish the circumstances of that day, including detailed analysis of CCTV and the examination of expert reports. We have also sought early investigative advice from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).

“We recognise that the time taken has caused further distress but it is only right and fair to all involved that we carry out a thorough and extensive investigation.

“We have updated the families on one specific issue which has unfortunately added to the time this investigation is taking. This is around a lack of specialist investigators whose role it is to provide expertise in such investigations – an issue we are working to address.”

Forensic investigators in numbers

A lack of forensic collision investigators has been given as one of the key reasons for the delay in the progress of the police investigation into the Wimbledon school crash.

The Met, the UK’s biggest police force, has said its Road and Transport Police Command has 11 forensic collision investigators who are tasked with dealing with around 100 fatal collisions and an equal number of incidents involving serious injury. A further 17 are in training.

i contacted the largest police forces in England and the devolved nations to confirm their forensic collision investigation capability. Of those who responded:

South Wales Police and Gwent Police, which pools resources for forensic collision, told i its forensic collision investigation unit currently has 14 qualified FCIs, with four in training.

The forces’ total workforce combined is significantly lower than the Met at around 5,500.

Their FCI unit attended 157 fatal, life-threatening and serious life changing incidents in 2022, 123 in 2023 and 32 this year to date.

South Wales Police said times for FCI reports to be completed averaged 88 days in 2022, 68 in 2023 and six this year to date.

West Midlands Police, which a workforce of around 12,500, confirmed it has 11 FCIs, with five of those in training.

Last year, its FCI unit attended around 100 incidents that were either fatal, life-threatening or confirmed life-changing injury collisions.

It said it takes an average of four to five months for an FCI report to be submitted, but the complexity of the collision will have a bearing on the timeframe, making some quicker and others longer.

West Yorkshire Police said it leads a collaborative Forensic Collision Investigation service to the four police forces of Yorkshire and Humber (West Yorkshire, North Yorkshire, South Yorkshire, and Humberside).

Those forces share the use of 40 FCIs, three assistant FCIs, and five supervisors who are also operationally competent, with six FCI vacancies.

Across Yorkshire and The Humber, FCI investigations are taking an average of nine months to complete, the force said.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) said there are six staff in the role of Road Traffic Collision Reporting Officers, employed by Forensic Science Northern Ireland (FSNI).

A Police Federation of England and Wales representative said: “The reported shortage of Forensic Collision Investigators is concerning, as highlighted in the Wimbledon case.

“Whilst some forces may have struggled to recruit Forensic Collision Investigators over recent years, we must recognize that this is a highly skilled and often stressful role, which demands many years of intense training to gain the necessary experience and qualifications.

“Whilst the role is generally divided between police officers and civilian investigators across the country, the responsibility of the role is often not reflected in the pay. To improve recruitment, appropriate pay to reflect the responsibilities of the role would be beneficial, along with sufficient study time for new investigators and adequate welfare provisions.”

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