Convictions for sexual crimes reach all-time high

Convictions for domestic abuse were at their second highest level on record last year, while the number of people convicted for sexual crimes reached an all-time high.

Official statistics for 2015-16 reveal that 12,374 people were convicted in Scotland’s courts for crimes and offences involving domestic abuse – compared to 8,566 in 2010-11 and the highest figure of 12,440 in 2014-15.

A record 1,156 people were convicted for sexual crimes last year – up slightly from 1,152 in 2014-15 and 35 per cent more than the 857 convictions in 2006-07. Much of the increase over the longer term has been driven by rises in prosecutions for the taking, distribution and possession of indecent photos of children, alongside increased confidence of victims to report rape and sexual assaults, leading to more cases coming to court.

Convictions for rape and attempted rape continue to attract the longest prison terms (other than life sentences for murder), with the average sentence length rising to over seven years (2,572 days), up eight per cent in the last year.

The bulletin Criminal Proceedings in Scotland 2015-16 also showed that the number of criminal convictions in Scotland overall fell below 100,000, to 99,950, for the first time on record – in part reflecting the fall in recorded crime, to its lowest level in 42 years, and similar trends from the Scottish Crime and Justice Survey.

The Lord Advocate, James Wolffe QC (pictured above), said: “I have made clear that the Crown will continue to take a firm and rigorous prosecutorial approach to domestic abuse.

“The number of convictions shows that the approach which we take, which involves prosecutors working with colleagues across the criminal justice system, is working. Victims can have the confidence to come forward and report these crimes.

“For too long domestic abuse was not taken sufficiently seriously by the criminal justice system. Domestic abuse blights families and individuals. The public interest demands that, where there is a proper basis for doing so, the Crown should take action to address crimes involving domestic abuse.”

The bulletin also shows that around 14 per cent of convictions result in a custodial sentence – a level that has remained relatively stable over the last ten years – while community sentences, imposed on a record 18,943 people last year accounted for 19 per cent of people convicted (compared to 12 per cent in 2006-07).

Where custodial sentences were imposed, the average length of these (excluding life sentences) has grown by over a quarter (26 per cent) since 2006-07 to around nine and a half months.

Justice Secretary Michael Matheson (pictured right) said: “Sexual offences are often the most complex and challenging to prosecute, partly due to challenges around evidence, so it is encouraging that as more people come forward to report these crimes, the police and the Crown are securing convictions in the courts.

“We are investing record sums to tackle violence against women and girls, including enhanced specialist support services for victims that can also help them provide the best evidence.”

But the government and prosecution service’s approach to domestic abuse has also come under criticism.

An anonymous former fiscal, writing for Scottish Legal News in November last year, said that it is “certainly well-known within legal and criminal justice circles that criminal cases involving a ‘domestic’ element are being subjected to an incredibly over-zealous, intrusive and counter-productive approach led in policy partnership by the Scottish government, Police Scotland and COPFS”.

They added that complainers are ignored when they plead for their partners not to be prosecuted because “prosecution remained at the forefront of our agenda to satisfy policy requirements.”

Another fiscal made an anonymous submission to Holyrood’s Justice Committee last month citing concerns over a routine lack of evidence.

The fiscal told the committee that, as a result of failures, the sheriff and jury unit to which they are assigned sees “serious and often complex cases” indicted for trial “(1) without all the essential evidence on the indictment, (2) without being read by a legally qualified member of staff, (3) without there ever being any prospect of sufficient evidence, resulting in a huge waste of time and resources and unnecessary distress and inconvenience for witnesses.“