Today, MSPs on the criminal justice committee will gather for the latest round of pre-budget scrutiny. It has been a gruelling process so far, and with few exceptions, the warnings of a storm ahead have been deeply unsettling.
Only last week, Police Scotland’s deputy chief officer, David Page, said the funding proposals for the next four years would have major implications for the force’s services. Not only may it lead to the loss of thousands of officers and staff, he said it could lead to the non-emergency 101 service being withdrawn, with potential delays to 999 calls being answered.
Such a prospect is as startling as it is worrying, and provided an alarming insight into the fiscal challenges facing ministers. In truth, however, it is only the tip of the iceberg.
Across the entire justice system, the budget allocation outlined by finance secretary Kate Forbes in her resource spending review framework could be nothing less than devastating.
In short, the Scottish Government aims to provide £11.6 billion over the next four years - an across the board, flat cash settlement. In reality, soaring inflation means that will amount to a significant real terms reduction in spending of around £102 million, with capital spending also decreasing in real terms.
At a time when the justice system is still trying to play catch up with the disruption wrought by the pandemic, the extent of the cuts is vast, and the repercussions could be felt for years, if not decades, to come.
Take the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service (SCTS), which is in line for a six per cent real terms cut in its funding pot. That reduced budget, according to Eric McQueen, its chief executive, will result in an annual funding gap of more than £31m by 2026/27.
It is a significant amount of money and the consequences of its loss will be seen in various ways. As well as a reduction in court sitting days, they include the risk of complainers and witnessing disengaging from the court process before cases are called. The cuts also put the laudable ambitions of achieving a more victim-centred approach, and better managing domestic abuse cases, in jeopardy.
Even on a day to day level, the prospect of renewed delays in the system endangers the prospect of justice being served, with the ability of witnesses to recall and provide quality evidence diminishing as a result of renewed backlogs.
It also increases the likelihood of breaches and reoffending by the near historic number of accused individuals on remand, simply because it will take longer for their cases to come to court. In isolation, any of these outcomes are clearly undesirable. Cumulatively, however, they are intolerable.
As Mr McQueen pointed out to MSPs in a letter ahead of his appearance today, ensuring that the courts and tribunals system is sufficiently resourced to challenge laws and resolve disputes is more than a public service, it is an essential aspect of the machinery of a democratic society, one “which must be maintained if confidence in the rule of law is to be upheld.”
John Logue, Crown agent of the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service has also issued an ominous assessment of what will be left after the cuts are made, pointing out that there is no viable scope to cease or scale back its work without “increasing risks to communities and the loss the of public confidence in the Scottish justice system.”
To a very limited extent, there are novel ways in which to mitigate some of these potential harms. The use of virtual summary trials, for example, can expedite the number of cases being heard, and recent pilots have shown the merits of streamlining summary case management. But ingenuity and technology can only go so far, and the grim forecasts made by Mr McQueen and Mr Logue should not be taken lightly. Is the social cost of a price worth paying? It is a difficult political quandary, but it is one justice secretary Keith Brown and the rest of the government must reckon with.
That is to say nothing of the myriad other impacts of the flat cash settlement, especially when it comes to widening inequality in the justice system. For example, the proposed reduction in legal aid will make it considerably more difficult for vulnerable individuals to access legal advice and support, and the shortages in representation seen in recent months may well intensify.
Organisations involved in community justice, who rightly argue they are already underfunded and underappreciated as things stand, will also see their resources shrink. That means that important work to break cycles of harm and offending by tackling the likes of mental health and addiction issues will be curtailed.
In short, if the funding proposals are ratified, the justice system of 2027 will be a very different beast to the one that exists today. Even without the budgetary pressures, it would still be facing systemic problems around issues such as legal aid and reducing reoffending. Factor the fiscal constraints into the equation, however, and it is hard to foresee anything other than a crisis on the horizon.
There are no cheap or easy fixes to all this, and the calls for widespread reform of the justice system will only grow louder as a result. Something has to give, surely?