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25 April 2017, 06:37
There are serious failings in Scotland's criminal justice system, MSPs have said, as a new report warned both victims and witnesses can be "made to feel like an afterthought''.
The Justice Committee, which has been carrying out an investigation into the work of the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS), highlighted a number of issues for ministers and prosecutors to consider.
MSPs heard praise for the "professionalism'' and "dedicated, hard-working staff'' in the COPFS, with their report stating: "On the whole, the public should have confidence that it is a rigorous and fair prosecutor.''
The report went on to warn the service is under "considerable pressure'' and stressed: "There can be no room for complacency.''
The COPFS budget has been falling from a peak of £118.3 million in 2009-10 - with the FDA trade union claiming that if funding remains the same next year, the service will be facing a real-terms budget cut of 21.5%.
The number of prosecutors employed by the COPFS has also been in decline since 2009-10 when it stood at an all-time high of 558.
The committee heard evidence it "was commonplace for prosecutors to have to work late or at weekends, and to take work home'' in what was regarded as being "an increasingly difficult job''.
The report warned it "would be unreasonable for the COPFS to continue to rely on the resilience of its staff indefinitely''.
Meanwhile, witnesses have a perception of a prosecution service which is "just about managing'' and which is "lacking the time and resources to always get things right''.
MSPs said they were "concerned by evidence as to the lack of contact between victims and prosecutors during trial preparation, leading in some cases to a perception from victims that the Crown was not well prepared when it came to the trial''.
The committee concluded "the evidence taken from victims of crime set out serious failings by the criminal justice system, of which the COPFS is a key component, to provide the confidence necessary for these victims to participate in court proceedings''.
The report added: "These failings including a lack of communications, misinformation, delays and adjournments have resulted in some of these victims concluding that they would never have reported the crime in the first place.''
MSPs said such issues "must be addressed as a priority'' and called on the COPFS to find "more effective methods for passing on accurate up-to-date information about trials in real-time to all stakeholders, victims especially''.
The report continued: "Victims can be re-traumatised by what can come across as a mechanistic process that does not always appear to have their interests at heart.
"Victims and witnesses are sometimes made to feel like an afterthought.
"This is a system-wide problem but the COPFS, as the key organisation within the prosecution process, bears its share of responsibility.''
Justice Committee convener Margaret Mitchell said: "An effective Crown Office is fundamental to an effective criminal justice system in Scotland.
"The committee heard many concerns during our inquiry.
"Across the board, witnesses identified possible improvements which could be made to how COPFS works - and better-serve justice and the public.
"These findings must be taken into account by COPFS management and the Scottish Government.''
Lord Advocate James Wolffe QC said: "It is gratifying that the committee has concluded that COPFS is an effective, rigorous, fair and independent public prosecutor.
"It states that, in general, the public in Scotland is fundamentally well-served by the COPFS in that core role.
"That is, in large part, a tribute to the professionalism and commitment of the staff of the service.
"The committee has made a number of recommendations and I will wish to take time to reflect on all of those recommendations.''
A Scottish Government spokesman said: "The Scottish Government welcomes that the committee notes that the public is well-served by the COPFS and that it is a rigorous and fair prosecutor.
"However, there is no room for complacency and substantial work is already under way, taken forward jointly by the Scottish Government and justice agencies, to find more efficient ways to manage the processing of cases and to better-support the needs of victims and witnesses.
"Many aspects of the report relate to operational matters that are rightly the responsibility of the Lord Advocate to address.
"The Scottish Government will respond to the specific recommendations in the report directed to it in due course.''