Scotland’s public prosecutor must do better in a number of key areas according to a report issued today by Holyrood’s Justice Committee.
The report, which follows the Committee’s inquiry into the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal service (COPFS) praises COPFS staff for working hard to cope in the face of squeezed finances and new, complex criminal cases, but noted that there is no room for complacency in an organisation “just about managing”.
The Committee’s inquiry identified room for improvement in a number of fundamental Crown Office functions. Areas identified include the support given to victims and witnesses from the beginning to end of a prosecution, which is often an emotionally difficult and unfamiliar process; and the large workload and treatment of COPFS staff, which impacts on all aspects of the service and all stakeholders.
Similarly, the high level of adjournments and hold-ups, or ‘churn’, in trials was seen as unacceptable. However, there is an acknowledgement that the issue of churn – which damages public perceptions and confidence – cuts across the wider criminal justice system.
Margaret Mitchell MSP, Justice Committee Convener, 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.
“This report, its findings on the service’s strengths and weaknesses, and its recommendations are a considered, cross-party view following six months of work.
“These findings must be taken into account by COPFS management and the Scottish Government. There is no room for complacency, and the Committee will be keeping close watch on developments.”
Findings and recommendations include:
- COPFS is coping in its core role of steering trials through the courts to an appropriate outcome.
- The level of adjournments and postponements is unacceptably high – inadequate communication is a key problem.
- The COPFS should develop more efficient and effective ways to update people whose attendance is no longer required at a trial.
- The COPFS should consider concerns raised about the erosion of prosecutors’ autonomy and discretion, the lack of preparation time and the consequences for morale.
- Change is needed before the risks in the prosecution system crystallise – it would be unreasonable to rely on the resilience of COPFS staff indefinitely.
- The COPFS must act to improve the experience of victims and witnesses – for example by making the Victim’s Code available to victims and by implementing recommendations, many of which have been voiced before, made by Dr Lesley Thomson’s Review of Victim Care in the Justice Sector in Scotland.
A copy of the committee report can be found here.
More information about the inquiry, including Official Reports of meetings, correspondence and submissions are all available here: http://www.parliament.scot/parliamentarybusiness/CurrentCommittees/100984.aspx