Leaders: Our courts must be free to deliver justice

Picture: TSPL

Picture: TSPL

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Fiscals must not be afraid to drop cases deemed too weak to proceed on the basis of evidence due to political pressure and public outcry

A key function of the Procurator Fiscal Service is to allow prosecutors handling individual cases to judge themselves whether a case is strong enough to proceed on the basis of evidence.

The critical purpose here is to ensure that the question of whether or not to take a case forward is reached after due consideration by law officers who have the knowledge and experience to make an appropriate judgment.

Now concerns have been raised of a culture of fear – that fiscals are increasingly afraid to drop cases with scant likelihood of effective prosecution for fear of growing political diktat and an outcry from the public.

Lawyers representing bar associations in Scotland’s biggest cities have all voiced concerns over the “leaching away” of this discretion. This is a traditional cornerstone of Scots law. This fear is particularly pronounced in domestic abuse complaints and in cases involving allegations of racial prejudice. According to lawyers representing bar associations in Scotland’s major cities, prosecutors are being forced to take cases to trial despite clear shortcomings in the evidence.

Holyrood’s justice committee will launch an inquiry into the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service this week and will consider the concerns that have been raised. The Edinburgh Bar Association says it is now “stated policy” from the Crown Office that in some types of case the fiscal depute in court has no discretion as to whether or not to proceed. This, it adds, is applied “notwithstanding any proper professional views they may have formed based on the evidence available to them”. Similar concerns have been expressed by the Aberdeen Bar Association, which says fiscals should “not be bound by Government policy or dictated to… They should be able to exert their judgment, in deciding what should and shouldn’t be prosecuted, and where they can channel and focus the resources they have, rather than being dictated to by others, far removed from the reality of decision-making”.

And the Glasgow Bar Association has made similar points. The issue has also been highlighted by Gordon Jackson, head of the Faculty of Advocates, who recently voiced fears that the independence of Scotland’s prosecution service is being “eroded” under pressure from politicians and victims’ families.

Now our courts have to be sensitive to changing social mores and the degree to which cases involving allegations of sexual or racial prejudice have come to be regarded altogether more seriously than as recently as ten years ago. That said, however, the courts must guard against political pressures and populist urges to prosecute where there is insufficient evidence to mount a reasonable case.

This has to be a serious concern and one that extends beyond the sensitivity of lawyers. Holyrood and the administration need to take these concerns seriously and ensure courts are not being impeded in delivering justice. No-one should pretend that decisions in such areas are easy. But difficult decisions have to be made and prosecutors must feel able to make them lest our justice system becomes jammed with poorly evidenced cases and becomes unworkable.

Rebus has reached immortality

Inspector Rebus to retire – or worse still, killed off? Never! Celebrated crime writer Ian Rankin says he cannot bring himself to let go of his great detective after some 30 years in the service – and no fewer than four retirements.

The Edinburgh author says the grizzled detective will never be “bumped off” – despite previous warnings to fans of a pending disappearance.

Rankin, quizzed on the radio about Rebus by two former real-life detectives, insists that Rebus is not going to become a cab driver or open a B&B in Marbella. “He’s not going to do the things that retired detectives ought to be doing. He’s a cop. He’s a detective to the very core of his being. If he ceases to be a detective then he ceases to be. The only thing waiting for him is a protracted slow death, sitting in the pub all day, drinking whisky and chasers.”

Rebus appeared to have worked on his final case in 2007, set during his final days as a working detective. Well, that was then. This is now.

So stand by in due course for future appearances pounding the streets of Edinburgh with his Zimmer frame and popping into the Oxford Bar for a glass of Red Bull and Sanatogen chaser. Crime never stops. And nor does Rebus.

Says Rankin, “It’s Rebus who won’t let go. He refuses to leave the building. There’s still a bit of life left in the old dog. He’s still an engaging character for me to write about.”

And he is, says his creator, a professional voyeur “as many detectives, and all authors, are”.

What an immense relief this will be to his legion of followers. It’s surely only fitting that Rebus has reached a state of immortality, no more capable of fading away than the capital city that bred him – or his fan base.

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