Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service ‘just about managing’, according to Justice Committee report

Written by Jenni Davidson on 25 April 2017 in News

The committee found that COPFS staff are under pressure and there needs to be more communication with victims

Scottish Parliament windows - Image credit: Holyrood

The Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) is “just about managing”, according to a report from the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee.

During evidence taken into the functions of the COPFS, the committee found that there is an above-average number of staff on sick leave or reporting they are overworked, while funding for the service has dropped by a fifth in a decade, with a reduction of 30 staff expected in 2017.

However, the committee also heard praise for the hardworking staff.

It concludes: “On the whole, the public should have confidence that it is a rigorous and fair prosecutor.

“However, the service remains under considerable pressure. There can be no room for complacency.”

The Committee’s inquiry identified room for improvement in a number of Crown Office functions.

Areas identified include the support given to victims and witnesses, which is often an emotionally difficult and unfamiliar process and the large workload and treatment of COPFS staff, which impacts on all aspects of the service.

Similarly, the high level of adjournments and hold-ups, or ‘churn’, in trials was seen as unacceptable.

However, there is an acknowledgement that the issue of churn – which damages public perceptions and confidence – cuts across the wider criminal justice system.

The report found that Scotland’s public prosecutor is coping in its core role of steering trials through the courts to an appropriate outcome, but the level of adjournments and postponements is unacceptably high and inadequate communication is a key problem.

It recommends that the COPFS develop more efficient and effective ways to update people whose attendance is no longer required at a trial.

It also says the COPFS should consider concerns raised about the erosion of prosecutors’ autonomy and discretion, the lack of preparation time and the consequences for morale.

According to the report, change is needed before the risks in the prosecution system crystallise and it would be unreasonable to rely on the resilience of COPFS staff indefinitely.

Justice Committee convener Margaret Mitchell said: “An effective Crown Office is fundamental to an effective criminal justice system in Scotland.

“The committee heard many concerns during our inquiry.

“Across the board, witnesses identified possible improvements which could be made to how COPFS works – and better serve justice and the public.

“This report, its findings on the service’s strengths and weaknesses, and its recommendations are a considered, cross-party view following six months of work.

“These findings must be taken into account by COPFS management and the Scottish Government.

“There is no room for complacency, and the committee will be keeping close watch on developments.”

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