Courts could be shut, sitting days scaled back and up to 200 jobs axed amid funding black hole for Scottish justice system
Progress on the backlog of court cases caused by Covid-19 would also be entirely reversed, returning to pandemic levels within three years and rising indefinitely afterwards under drastic reductions required to meet the funding cuts laid out by the Scottish Government.
MSPs have been told the cuts to Scotland’s justice system could result in a crisis of confidence and an increased risk to communities.
The Crown Office, which estimated its funding gap at £19.2m for next year, warned there was “no viable scope” for further spending cuts without “increasing risks to communities and the loss of public confidence in the Scottish justice system”. Critics said it would be the victims of crimes who would “pay the price” for the “devastating consequences” of the Government pushing ahead with justice system cuts.
Both the courts and the Crown Office face a real-terms cut to their budgets over the next five years, according to the Government’s resource spending review, published in May. They also face increased costs associated with inflation and pay deals, creating further pressure on already stretched financial settlements.
In a submission to the criminal justice committee, the SCTS’s chief executive, Eric McQueen, said the service would face a funding gap of £9.5m in 2023/24, rising to £31.3m by 2026/27. He said cost-cutting options such as reducing the number of sheriff summary and civil court sitting days by 25 per cent, alongside the loss of 180 jobs, could save £7.3m. The closure of three or four court buildings could save a further £4m, with 50 job losses from corporate services and the tribunal side of the organisation could save a further £2m.
Cuts of this scale would mean the loss of the “benefits from the existing criminal recovery programme”, with case backlogs rising by 4,000 a year and returning to pandemic levels by 2025 before rising further indefinitely. Mr McQueen said complainers and witnesses may disengage from the court process, and planned reforms of the justice system may go undelivered due to the need to support core services, leading to Scotland potentially being viewed as “failing compared with other jurisdictions”. “The current financial outlook poses risks to the provision of access to justice in Scotland,” Mr McQueen said.
John Logue, the Crown Agent, told MSPs there was “no viable scope” for further cuts to Crown Office services. "There is no viable scope for stopping or scaling back any specific or significant activity without increasing risks to communities and the loss of public confidence in the Scottish justice system,” he said. Mr Logue added: “The current service staffing levels are the minimum essential for managing case levels and complexity of our case work, and for tackling the backlog of cases. The Crown Office is facing a funding gap of £19.2m in 2023/24, rising to £25m the year after, before returning to £20.5m by 2026/27.”
Scottish Conservative justice spokesperson Jamie Greene said the justice system could “ill-afford a further reduction in service” or further court closures. “The SNP are continuing to short change our courts service and it is victims of crimes who will pay the price with further delays to them receiving justice,” he said.
“The backlog of cases that has built up is unsustainable if the SNP refuse to meet the reasonable budget demands from our courts. Many communities have already seen the loss of courts from their local area and the justice system can ill-afford a further reduction in service.
"Right across our justice system, key stakeholders are warning of the devastating consequences if the SNP press ahead with their current funding plans. Ministers must finally listen to them and ensure they are not facing a monumental black hole in the years ahead.”
Scottish Labour’s justice spokesperson Pauline McNeill said the submission highlighted “another shocking failure” for the SNP. "At a time when less crimes are being solved, less police officers are on our streets, and as many as 4,500 policing jobs are at risk, the Government plans to make even greater cuts to our justice system,” she said.
"If these budget cuts result in as much 25 per cent of sitting days being lost from summary courts, it means that court waiting times will become even longer than they are now. If there are significant delays in court trials, then cases could be open to challenge under ECHR [European Convention on Human Rights] laws.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We have a strong track record on court investment in recent times, which has had a positive impact on backlogs, demonstrating that we continue to prioritise these services where possible.
“Our justice recovery fund of £53.2m in 2022/23 included funding of £26.5m to the Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service (SCTS) to maintain enhanced court capacity to respond to Covid backlogs. In addition, we have allocated a further £4.2m to the SCTS resource budget, a 3.5 per cent increase.
“But whilst we will do all we can, our largely fixed budgets and limited fiscal powers means we need the UK Government to take urgent action to support those in need, and to provide the Scottish Government with the funding we need to support public services and the economy in these difficult times.
“We continue to work closely with justice partners to maximise the potential for recovery and ongoing improvement and transformation.”
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