Margaret Mitchell: Problems in the prosecution service must by addressed

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Scotland’s Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) is absolutely fundamental to the smooth running of our criminal justice system, which has many parts.

Each must work efficiently, effectively and in synchronisation if justice is to be delivered timeously and public confidence maintained. 

Yet despite the pivotal role the COPFS plays, there has been only one major inquiry into its work since the inception of devolution. This was undertaken by the then justice committee in 2001 and completed in 2003.

Meanwhile, in the last 15 years there have been significant developments affecting the COPFS in terms of criminal offences, criminal procedure and court judgments.

The service itself has undergone structural changes and the pressure on it has grown with a slew of new legislation, more complicated crimes being reported and its increased responsibilities to victims, witnesses and the defence.

All this against a background of increasing and continuing budgetary constraints.

It is perhaps not surprising that the Scottish Parliament’s current justice committee considered that the time was well overdue to embark on another major inquiry into COPFS’s effectiveness and efficiency.

Some consistent themes have emerged in the evidence the committee read and heard.

It is worth stating at the outset that the professionalism of prosecutors working in courts is recognised by their colleagues across the board.

Equally however, the environment these professionals have been working in over several years has been far from ideal and has taken its toll on morale.

This includes working against a background of the centralisation of prosecutors’ decision-making and also the issuing of short-term contracts which has led to skilled, trained prosecutors leaving the service in search of job security – a needless waste of public resources and a loss to the COPFS.

The committee not only heard but members saw for themselves examples of the extreme work pressure COPFS staff are under with cases in front of them quite literally piled high without them having sufficient preparation time to deal with these cases when they come to court.

It also became evident that the COPFS support for victims and witnesses is not working well enough. For example, the committee heard that victims and witnesses are often inconvenienced and feel ignored, frightened and left in the dark about their cases.

Most strikingly this led to one domestic abuse victim the committee heard from state she, rather than the perpetrator, had suffered more from the case going to trial.

Poor communication lies at the heart of this problem. This is not just a problem for victims and witnesses but also for key stakeholders including defence agents.

It then becomes a contributory factor in the delays and adjournments of court cases, commonly referred to as “churn”.

The justice committee recognises that the service has had to cope with real-terms cuts and that it would be unreasonable for the COPFS to continue to rely on the resilience of its staff indefinitely.

The committee therefore warns against complacency and has emphasised that the various shortcomings, identified by stakeholders, must be addressed.

Margaret Mitchell MSP is convener of Holyrood’s justice committee.