PEOPLE accused of serious crimes may escape justice thanks to increasing pressures on Scotland’s procurator fiscal service and shortcomings in the processing of cases, a hard-hitting inspection report has warned.

The red alert was issued after inspectors examined how those destined to stand trial at either a high court or sheriff court before a jury were being processed through the prosecution system.

They found a series of issues adding to pressures on lawyers preparing cases, including a growing number and increasing complexity of serious offences.

But they were also critical of some aspects of the way in which the service was managing maximum time limits relating to when an accused appears in court for the first time charged with an offence and when the trial starts. If the time limit expires suspects can walk free.

“Approximately 5,300 serious cases are prosecuted each year. However, whilst the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (Copfs) has a strong track record of compliance with statutory time limits, the combination of an increasing volume of serious cases, the changing profile of serious offending and the greater complexity of such cases, all in the context of reducing budgets, has impacted on its ability to progress high court cases expeditiously,” concluded the Inspectorate of Prosecution in Scotland report, published yesterday.

“This increases the risk that cases may be lost if time limits are not managed effectively.”

It added: “As well as the consequences ... for victims, witnesses and the community, any failure resulting in a case becoming time-barred is likely to undermine public confidence in the Copfs and, potentially, in the criminal justice system as a whole.”
The report said managing time limits had become more complex in recent years “as the criminal landscape” changed.

It stated: “There has been an increase in the overall volume of serious crime reported by the police as well as a marked change in the profile of such cases, including a substantial increase in reports of sexual crime.”

Time limits vary from 80 to 140 days depending on whether an accused person is in custody or on bail and whether the case is to be heard in the sheriff or high court. They have been a central part of Scots law for at least three centuries, acting as a driver for the prosecution to proceed swiftly as well as providing a safeguard for the accused.

In many other jurisdictions, including England and Wales, there is no time limit for cases where the accused is not in custody, while Scotland has some of the shortest time limits in the world.

If the time limit expires, suspects in custody must be released on bail and for those on bail the proceedings are brought to an end and the charges lifted.

The inspectors found there was significant awareness within Copfs of the importance of adhering to time limits and that meeting them was given the utmost priority.

However, they put forward 13 recommendations demanding major changes to ensure time limits were not exceeded, including the need for an improved monitoring and recording system relating to cases that had breached time limits.

David Sinclair, head of communications at Victim Support Scotland, said victims of crime were devastated when cases were not prosecuted – and their distress would be increased if administrative shortcomings were to blame.

“The loss of any case where there was sufficient case to prosecute and for whatever reason that prosecution was unable to advance would not be in the interests of crime or indeed in the interests of the criminal justice system in Scotland,” he said.

“We fully understand there are cases where a decision is taken by the procurator fiscal’s office not to prosecute because of insufficient evidence, but that’s the only reason why cases should not advance. Any serious case where they have the perpetrator should be brought before the court and they should be dealt with and be seen to be dealt with.”

Last year the Procurators Fiscal Society (PFS), a section of the FDA civil servants’ union, claimed the criminal justice system was being put at “huge risk” by funding cuts at a time of increasing workload.

It said that despite an increase to the Crown Office’s overall budget, the money for staffing remained at £69.1 million, a real-terms cut of £1.1m.

In a submission to the Scottish Parliament’s justice committee, the PFS said prosecution staff were dealing with a heavier workload due, in part, to an increase in police numbers.

It said about 70 per cent of the work dealt with by those in the Crown Office’s high court unit related to sexual offending, cases which could be complex and time-consuming.

A spokesman for Copfs said last night: “Copfs note the Inspectorate’s report and welcome its findings, in particular that Copfs manage the complexity of time bars very well.

“We accept all of the report recommendations, some of which have already been implemented, which will enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of our work.

“We will continue to adapt to change, adopting new approaches in our work and implementing solutions for the future. This includes the use of new technologies, which have already helped us to reduce some costs ensuring as much of our budget as possible is directed towards our frontline staff who continue to work to secure justice for the people of Scotland.”

“The COPFS budget for 2015-16 has increased by £3.4 million – a 1.5 per cent rise in real terms.”