Prosecutors Busier As Budget Falls

14 November 2014, 06:05 | Updated: 14 November 2014, 07:21

Prosecutors say they are dealing with a rise in the number of serious criminal cases while the staffing budget tightens.

The increase in complex work coupled with dwindling resources is creating a "huge risk'' for the criminal justice system, according to the Procurator Fiscal Society.

The body representing more than 350 legal staff, including senior lawyers at the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS), made the comments in a submission to Holyrood's justice committee on the draft Budget for 2014/15.

The society said: "While COPFS appear to have received a real-term increase to the overall budget, upon further analysis it is apparent that the amount provided in the budget for staffing remains at #69.1 million.

"In real terms this is a £1.1 million cut in our staffing budget for next year and that is even before pay increases and increased employer contributions are taken into account.

"The obvious consequence of this reduction in staffing costs is that the number of staff will have to decrease, which we believe will have a detrimental effect on our members' professional ability to prosecute cases in a timely and effective manner, their ability to meet COPFS performance targets and therefore the proper demands of victims and witnesses in Scotland.''

The number of criminal case reports received from the police in 2013/14 rose by around 5% on the previous year to 293,672, the submission states.

There has been a "significant'' increase in the number of serious cases that require proceedings before a jury at the Sheriff or High Court.

These include domestic abuse cases which can involve multiple complainers and span several years.

Prosecutors said: "There has been no additional COPFS resource to deal with these cases despite the increased work.

"While looking at Police Scotland initiatives such as the domestic abuse task force, we would make the general observation that whilst there was a commitment from the Scottish Government to employ 1,000 additional police officers, there has never been a commensurate rise in the budget of COPFS to deal with the inevitable increase in work generated by those additional police officers.''

They concluded: "Legal and administrative resources are decreasing at the same time as the level of serious cases increases. This is creating a huge risk for the criminal justice system as a whole.

"We know that work is under way by COPFS to exploit new technology solutions and streamline work practices in order to deal with the challenges we have outlined.

"The difficulty for our members in such a strategy is that any benefit felt in such changes may not be realised for months or years down the line. Some of our members report to us that they are already struggling to cope with their workloads and need to see a solution to alleviate that pressure far more quickly.''

The Scottish Conservative justice spokeswoman Margaret Mitchell said: "The Scottish Government has legislated and implemented policy without giving a second thought to how this will impact those at the sharp end.

"The justice system is already struggling to cope, and with court closures still to bite, that situation is only going to get worse.

"Now we can see in black and white the dangerous impact the Scottish Government's budget decision is going to have in the Crown Office and in the courts.

"That can only damage Scotland's justice system as a whole, denying people access to justice and causing huge inconvenience and hurt to victims and witnesses.

"The SNP should treat this submission with the utmost seriousness.''