Rise in domestic violence and abuse sparks courts inquiry

A major inquiry into Scotland's prosecution service will look at how it is coping with a huge rise in historic sex abuse and domestic violence cases.

The inquiry will examine how the prosecution service is coping with a 'huge rise' in domestic violence and sex abuse cases. Picture (posed by model): John Devlin
The inquiry will examine how the prosecution service is coping with a 'huge rise' in domestic violence and sex abuse cases. Picture (posed by model): John Devlin

The Scottish Parliament’s justice committee intends to look at the “effectiveness” of the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) as part of a wide-ranging review of its work.

The committee’s chair, Tory MSP Margaret Mitchell, said concerns had been raised about how prosecutors are dealing with an increasingly complex caseload including sexual abuse cases dating back many years.

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The inquiry will look at how well COPFS works overall and whether it has the resources to carry out its key functions.

Margaret Mitchell is chair of the Scottish Parliament justice committee. Picture: Mark Sutherland

MSPs will also examine how prosecutors are able to respond to new challenges posed by the changing nature of crime and advances in technology.

Scotland’s courts have seen a big increase in both sexual abuse and domestic violence cases due to proactive policing and victims having more confidence to come forward.

Mitchell said: “The Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service is absolutely fundamental to the operation of an effective justice system in Scotland. This is why this committee has chosen to make it the focus of its first major inquiry.

“MSPs on the previous justice committee raised several concerns about the additional pressures that the organisation faced in recent times – including an increase in complex historic sex abuse and domestic abuse cases and new requirements required by legislation. The COPFS’s responsibilities towards victims and witnesses have also been increasing – and rightly.

Margaret Mitchell is chair of the Scottish Parliament justice committee. Picture: Mark Sutherland

“This has all taken place against a backdrop of tight budgetary settlements in recent years. It is likely these significant pressures will continue, so fundamental to this inquiry will be to determine if the COPFS has the resources it needs to bring offenders to justice, and is ‘future proofed’ to deal with new challenges.”

Last year the Crown Office announced plans to appoint more specialist prosecutors to deal with its increasing criminal caseload.

It followed a 5 per cent increase in the number of reports it received from the police compared with 2010.

There was a 35 per cent rise in domestic abuse cases and a 12 per cent jump in sex offences in just 12 months.

The Procurator Fiscal Society, part of the FDA union, had previously warned that the rise in complex work coupled with dwindling resources was creating a “huge risk” for the criminal justice system.

Prosecutors said there had been no additional resources to deal with the extra cases they were dealing with.

Last year, a report from Audit Scotland said the sheriff court system was coming under increasing pressure with more cases going to trial and taking longer to conclude. The report, commissioned to investigate whether the court system is working efficiently, said sheriffs were hearing more complex cases and budget cuts were adding to the pressure.

The new inquiry has called for submissions from interested parties. It is keen to hear about the “overall efficiency and effectiveness” of the COPFS and how that could be improved through the use of technology and further reforms to the criminal justice system.

The inquiry will also consider whether the COPFS is able to keep pace with new technologies being exploited by criminals and whether it is “future proofed” to deal with the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union.

A Crown Office spokesman said: “The law officers and crown agent welcome the justice committee’s decision to examine the work of Scotland’s prosecution service as an opportunity for them to set out their vision.

“The range and complexity of crime has changed significantly in recent years and we have set up specialist units to help us respond effectively to complex frauds, international crimes and the increased number of sexual offences cases. We look forward to working with the committee over the coming months to highlight our strong track record in prosecuting crime in Scotland.”

Earlier this week the Scottish Government outlined plans for a new Domestic Abuse Bill, which will introduce a specific domestic abuse offence for the first time.

At present, prosecutions are brought for offences such as assault or breach of the peace, with domestic abuse an aggravating factor.

The new offence will also criminalise psychological abuse that can be difficult to deal with under existing laws.

Published on Tuesday, the SNP’s programme for government also included proposals to increase the use of digital technology to speed up justice in Scotland’s courts.