Court closures to blame for trial delays, claims Labour

Haddington Sheriff Court, East Lothian. Picture: Andrew O'Brien / JP license.
Haddington Sheriff Court, East Lothian. Picture: Andrew O'Brien / JP license.
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A controversial programme of court closures has been blamed for a large rise in the number of trials being adjourned.

Figures from the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service show there had been a 66 per cent rise in the number of trials put off due to lack of court time.

Scottish Labour blamed the rise on the closure of local sheriff courts and said the figures showed the prosecution service is “over-stretched, underfunded and in need of greater support”.

The party highlighted statistics showing that for solemn trials – more serious cases, which are heard in front of a jury – adjournments due to lack of court time have increased by 47 per cent since 2011, while summary trials for lesser offences have seen a 69 per cent rise over the same period, from 1,908 to 3,218.

The figures also show a fall in the number of days Scottish courts sat from 29,470 to 28,819 at the same time as the number of jury trials called increased 59 per cent and summary trials rose 30 per cent.

Of 2,073 solemn trial adjournments in 2015-16, 1,572 were by Crown motion. In summary trials, 8,387 of the 13,632 cases adjourned were at the request of the Crown.

READ MORE: No further court closures planned in Scotland

Scottish Labour’s justice spokeswoman Claire Baker MSP said: “In the last Parliament the SNP was repeatedly warned that its unpopular move to close local courts across Scotland would lead to a strain on court services elsewhere. The rise in trials and in adjournments due to lack of court time shows just how much of a strain the justice system is currently under in Scotland.

“We have seen a staggering 106 per cent rise in adjournments by the Crown in the most serious of cases and a further 32 per cent increase in summary cases. While this can be for a number of reasons, it is undeniable that budget pressures play their part. It is therefore inexcusable that the SNP has decided to hit the Crown Office with a further £4 million cut in the current draft budget.”

The Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service (SCTS) closed ten sheriff courts across Scotland between November 2013 and January 2015 in an effort to cut costs.

Last year, the SCTS said its own target of offering trial dates within 16 weeks of cases first calling in court was being met in 97 per cent of cases, up from 50 per cent in 2014.

The Scottish Parliament’s justice committee is currently holding an inquiry into the work of the Crown Office and has repeatedly heard warnings from witnesses about fiscal deputes struggling to cope with increased workloads.

Ms Baker added: “The SNP government cannot expect to keep cutting justice budgets – be it the Crown Office, Legal Aid, or the Safer and Stronger Communities budget – and expect to retain public confidence in delivering a justice system that keeps our communities safe.

“The delays in our court system are unacceptable, the budget cuts in the justice system are unacceptable, and the SNP must take action to address these.”

Other reasons given for the increase in solemn trial adjournments include an increase in the failure of the accused or a witness to appear.

Scottish Labour said there had been a 2.2 per cent decrease in the number of days of court sittings in Scotland. Meanwhile, there has been a 59 per cent increase in jury trials called and a 30 per cent increase in summary trials called.

In the draft budget last month, the Scottish Government announced a £4m real-terms cut to the budget of the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service.

In response to the new figures, the Scottish Government said while overall recorded crime has fallen, the courts are having to deal with an increase in the number of complex cases, particularly those involving sexual offences.

But a spokeswoman said: “There is no evidence to suggest that court closures have had any impact on the time it takes for cases to go through the courts. Latest figures show 97 per cent of sheriff courts were offering trial diets within the optimum of 16 weeks or sooner, compared to 50 per cent in April 2014. The rise of reporting and prosecution of certain types of crime has put extra pressure on the courts.

“We have already allocated nearly £1.5m for extra fiscals, judiciary and admin staff to help respond to delays and speed up access to justice for victims and witnesses, and are spending an extra £5m improving efficiency of cases involving domestic abuse and sexual offences.”