Routine difficulty in meeting statutory time limits in Scotland’s criminal justice system requires urgent attention, according to the Faculty of Advocates.
In its response to the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee, which is undertaking an inquiry into the Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal Service, Faculty also highlights the “blurring” of the public interest with the interests of complainers, and the demands put on limited resources by increased numbers of sexual and domestic abuse cases.
Faculty believes that a lack of resources within COPFS has had a “significant” impact on the effectiveness and efficiency of pre-indictment preparation of non-homicide and non-sexual cases.
Lengthy extensions of statutory time limits in High Court and sheriff and jury trials have become the norm in custody and bail cases, the submission states. Frequent delay in cases being indicted, coupled with increased delays in the fixing of trials, have led to the time limits – once a cornerstone of the Scottish justice system – routinely requiring to be extended.
“It is respectfully suggested that the impact of this systemic failure to comply with statutory time limits is given urgent consideration”, it added.
Faculty also questions whether COPFS has the resources and expertise to prepare and present other complex cases, and maintains that it is clear that the increased demands on limited resources by the increased number of sexual and domestic abuse cases represent “a significant challenge” to COPFS and to the criminal justice system.
With regard to decision-making, Faculty comments that there is "a widespread feeling that there is an increasing reluctance to discontinue proceedings once they have been initiated…a recurring concern is the blurring of the public interest with the perceived interest or expectations of the complainer".
It continues: “The Faculty is concerned about the apparent influence of complainers on the independence of prosecutorial decisions. There appears to be a widely held misconception that the prosecutor is the complainer’s lawyer and not an independent public prosecutor. While it is important that the victims of crime are treated with compassion and respect, it is imperative that the duty of the prosecutor – to act at all times in the public interest – is re-enforced whenever and wherever possible, to serving prosecutors, witnesses and to the public at large.”
It concludes: “The new Lord Advocate, Solicitor General and Crown Agent should be given time to evaluate the situation. To improve their prospects of building a prosecution service that meets the needs of stakeholders, inspires public confidence, and satisfies the interests of justice it is essential, first, that they are given the resources that are required and secondly, that they themselves attempt to address the change in culture that is needed in respect of the concerns raised in this response and, doubtless, in others. It is hoped that this inquiry provides the impetus to do both.”