THE prosecution service is struggling to cope with a soaring workload of cases, union leaders have warned, with concerns that plans to scrap the historic rule of corroboration in Scots law could make the situation worse, as more cases come to court.
Cases are now taking longer to get to court as the pressure builds and stress levels are growing among the country’s prosecutors, it has been claimed.
Justice secretary Kenny MacAskill admitted yesterday there are “challenges” but pledged to press ahead with the controversial proposal to end corroboration which could see thousands more cases in Scotland’s courts.
The number of cases which prosecutors are being forced to deal with has jumped by 15,000 since 2010, while staff numbers are also falling after a high four years ago, it has emerged.
Jim Caldwell, Scottish secretary of senior civil service union the First Division Association, said: “There are major issues in terms of the workload, in terms of the stress that they are under, in terms of lack of preparation for going to court.
“There are some courts that don’t take place because of a lack of resources and so they’re under great pressure and that pressure is increasing.”
Corroboration is the centuries-old requirement in Scots law for two different sources before any case can go to court, but it is due to be scrapped in the Criminal Justice Bill currently going through Holyrood.
The change is specifically aimed at ensuring more cases get to court, particularly rape and domestic violence cases, where there is often only the victim present and no-one else to back up their accusations.
The Crown Office has admitted there are challenges ahead as budgets fall, but said 60 more legal staff were employed last year and the caseload is actually down by 25,000, compared with 2007 when the SNP came to office.
Mr MacAskill said yesterday he had heard the “same complaints” about heavy workloads in the court system when he practised as a lawyer for 25 years throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
“Let’s get this in context,” he said. “We’ve got a 39-year low in recorded crime, we’ve got the lowest homicide rate since records started. We’ve got a halving of crimes of violence and a 60 per cent reduction in knife carrying.
“The record of police and prosecutors is outstanding. We do face challenges, but it’s a challenge they are rising to.”
Mr MacAskill also defended the plans to scrap corroboration, despite widespread concerns within the legal establishment and at Holyrood that it could lead to miscarriages of justice.
The newly installed Dean of the Faculty of Advocates, James Wolffe QC, warned the switch could leave Scotland with “fewer safeguards than any other comparable legal system” against miscarriages of justice.
But Mr MacAskill said: “We have significant sections of our society who basically, by the category of victims that they are, are denied access to justice.”
An estimated 3,000 cases have not come before the courts because of corroboration, according to Police Scotland.
Mr MacAskill insisted that the case against corroboration “has been made”.