Comprehensive reforms in the justice system, as well as more money for the sector, have been called for today by the Scottish Parliament’s Criminal Justice Committee in a report published ahead of the Scottish Government’s budget next month.

The MSPs conclude that many of the budget challenges in the justice system are symptoms of wider problems that have not been significantly addressed over many years.

Problems such as court backlogs, high numbers of remand prisoners, and overcrowded, outdated jails with "revolving doors" and issues with drugs deaths need to be tackled through policy-based solutions, as well as with adequate funding.

The report calls for integrated, long-term plans, led by the Scottish Government, and incorporating all the main justice partners to try to address issues including:

  • the huge court backlog of around 50,000 cases, made worse by the pandemic;
  • the size of the prison population, including the numbers of women in jail and remand prisoners;
  • improving the prison estate;
  • issues in prison such as drug misuse, prisoner and staff welfare, and managing serious organised crime groups inside;
  • the need for investment in police and fire services;
  • issues in the legal aid system;
  • support for victims and community justice schemes.

Pressures in the system could be eased, the committee believes, in time reducing the overall budgetary challenges for the justice sector, by spending on areas such as:

  • effective diversion from prosecution, or diversion from incarceration schemes for cases where those are appropriate;
  • drug recovery cafés in prisons; and
  • throughcare for those leaving prison.

However prisons, police and fore services are all going to need above-inflation investment to address issues that they face.

As for legal aid, the report states: "We welcome the Scottish Government's statement that it will bring forward a bill in this area. However, we believe that consideration has to be given to accelerating the consultative work on this and the bill's introduction. It is not sustainable to wait a further year or two before starting any consideration of a bill."

In addition, in the absence as yet of an agreed methodology for a periodic review of fee rates, as recommended in the Evans review, it recommends that "immediate action is taken on fee rates while work is carried out to establish a methodology to take place as soon as possible".

The MSPs intend to produce a further report in the coming weeks on other recommendations in this area.

In the first instance, the report asks that the Cabinet Secretary and his main justice partners provide "a strategy document setting out how all the main parts of the sector are going to deal with the impact that the necessary efforts at tackling the court backlog are going to have across the sector, e.g. on prison populations. We want to see evidence of long term planning and joined-up thinking, underpinned by published analysis and modelling of what may happen as we start to address the backlog in the High Court, sheriff and JP courts".

Speaking as the report was launched, committee convener Audrey Nicoll MSP commented:

"We believe that there is a case for further spending to support the justice system to meet the many challenges it is facing.

"However, we recognise that money is not unlimited, and that some of the seemingly intractable issues faced by our courts, prisons and other justice partners will not be fixed simply by loosening the purse strings.

"We believe joined-up actions, achieving long term goals such as reducing reoffending, could prove transformational. This would improve outcomes for society as well as the budget for the sector."

Click here to view the report.