Audit Scotland Warns Of Pressure In Justice System

24 September 2015, 06:24

Scotland's justice system is under mounting pressure due to significant budget cuts, overworked prosecutors and a rise in complex sexual and domestic cases, the public spending watchdog has found.

Around £10 million is spent repeating stages in legal process unnecessarily, amounting to 5% of the entire £200 million annual cost of prosecutions, Audit Scotland said.

Procurator fiscal deputes' workload pressures are having an impact on their readiness to appear in court, and could be a contributing factor in the number of unnecessarily repeated stages, the spending watchdog added.

There has been a 12% drop in the number of people accused of a crime since 2010/11, but a 14% rise in the number of suspects awaiting trial by the end of 2014/15.

This "may give an indication of the overall pressure on the system and how well court business is managed'', Audit Scotland said.

The Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) budget has fallen by 14% since 2010/11, compared with a 7% cut in the overall Scottish Government budget.

The Scottish Court Service budget has fallen even further by 28%, double the proportion of COPFS and three times the proportion of the overall Government budget.

Audit Scotland said: "The budgets of the COPFS and the Scottish Court Service have experienced a more significant reduction than the overall Scottish Government budget.''

Fewer cases are concluding within the 26-week performance target, the average time for cases to conclude has risen, and a greater proportion of cases are going to trial.

This is, in part, due to a greater focus on more complex cases involving domestic abuse and historic sexual offences, and a subsequent rise in reporting of these types of crimes, Audit Scotland said.

Almost half of court appearances did not proceed as planned in 2014/15, with an estimated £10 million spent on cases repeating stages unnecessarily, known as "churn''.

Audit Scotland said: "During our fieldwork, we heard frequent reference to workload pressures facing procurator fiscal deputes and the subsequent impact on their readiness for an appearance in court. This may be a contributing factor to the amount of churn identified.

Caroline Gardner, Auditor General for Scotland, said: "Scotland's sheriff courts are an important part of our justice system, experienced by thousands of people, including victims and witnesses, every year.

"Like many parts of the public sector, the sheriff court system is facing falling budgets.

"Together with an increasing focus on cases which are more complex, this is putting pressure on the system as a whole. To deal with this, all the bodies involved in our sheriff court system must continue to develop how they work together, both nationally and locally.''

Paul Martin, convener of Holyrood's Public Audit Committee, said: "Against a backdrop of budget reductions and increasingly complex cases involving domestic abuse and historic sexual offences, it's disappointing that Audit Scotland found £10 million of unnecessary spending on repeated court case stages along with 48% of court appearances not proceeding as planned last year.

"Our committee will want to explore these issues further with the Auditor General at our meeting on October 7.''