COPFS review: Faculty submission highlights failure to meet statutory time limits
Routine difficulty in meeting statutory time limits in Scotland’s criminal justice system requires urgent attention, the Faculty of Advocates has told MSPs.
Other “difficulties” facing the prosecution service were also highlighted by the Faculty in a submission to the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee.
Those include 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.
The Justice Committee is undertaking an inquiry into the role and purpose of the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) and has also received written submissions from the Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen bar associations as well as the Law Society of Scotland.
In written evidence, the Faculty said: “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, firstly, 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.”
The Faculty noted that lengthy extensions of statutory time limits in High Court and Sheriff and jury trials had become the norm in custody and bail cases. It said frequent delay in cases being indicted, coupled with increased delays in the fixing of trials, had 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.
“With regard to decision-making, 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.
“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.”
The Faculty believed that a lack of resources within COPFS had had a “significant” impact on the effectiveness and efficiency of pre-indictment preparation of non-homicide and non-sexual cases.
It also questioned whether COPFS had the resources and expertise to prepare and present other complex cases, and said it was clear that the increased demands on limited resources by the increased number of sexual and domestic abuse cases represented “a significant challenge” to COPFS and to the criminal justice system.
“It is hoped that sufficient resources are put in place so that those challenges are met,” the Faculty added.
Looking to Brexit, it said: “The loss of the European Arrest Warrant and the services of Europol and Eurojust would undoubtedly hamper the Scottish prosecuting authorities and it is hoped that they are giving this matter urgent and serious consideration.”