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Inspectorate of Prosecution finds 'unacceptable delays' to sexual crime cases in Scotland

The High Court in Glasgow. Image credit: Lenn's Pics

Inspectorate of Prosecution finds 'unacceptable delays' to sexual crime cases in Scotland

“Unacceptable delays” are occurring in sexual crime cases, with some Crown Office staff choosing to re-set key target dates in cases to “mask the true journey time of these cases”, a follow-up review of the investigation and prosecution of sexual crime in Scotland has found.

The review, conducted by HM Inspectorate of Prosecution in Scotland, was a follow-up to a 2017 review and tracked the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service’s (COPFS) progress against 12 recommendations.

The 2017 review stated the inspectorate was “concerned about the length of time taken to investigate and prosecute sexual crime cases, particularly those subject to pre-petition investigation” and recommended ways to reduce the journey time of cases.

The follow-up report, released on Thursday, acknowledged that sexual crime had continued to rise, increasing by eight per cent between 2017-18 and 2018-19, with the volume of sexual crime doubling and now accounting for five per cent of all recorded crime.

The inspectorate reviewed 50 High Court sexual crime cases, randomly selected between 1 September 2018 and 28 February 2019. Overall, it found “considerable progress” had been made in relation to implementing the 2017 recommendations – eight had been achieved, three were in progress and one was no longer relevant due to changes to working practices.

But, despite this progress, the report found “delays still occur and there is still scope for improving communication with victims”.

It also found that, in applying key performance indicators (KPIs), there had been “a few cases” where a KPI had been exceeded or was almost due and “staff chose to re-set the KPI using the date of, for example, committal for further examination, rather than the date of the police report”.

“This included cases where several months had passed between these two dates,” the report found.

“While the desire to set only achievable KPIs is understandable, the effect of this is to mask the true journey time of these cases, as seen from the perspective of victims, witnesses and accused persons.

“This risks these cases not coming to the attention of senior managers who should be in a position to address the factors that have caused the initial delay. COPFS should consider how it manages these cases so that problems can be identified, cases expedited, and realistic reporting and indicting dates set.”

The report found “unacceptable delays” in two cases when making an initial decision as to what action should be taken, following receipt of a police report.

It found that out of nine cases subject to pre-petition investigation – “only two investigations were completed within the target timeframe”. And only six out of 12 cases had met target dates for reporting the case to Crown Counsel.

Further, of 11 cases where new indicting KPIs applied – with target dates designed to expedite and priories cases for indictment – these were only met in one case. When further enquiries took longer than the four weeks allocated to them, it found on average this had stretched out to nine weeks.

The report also noted that the COVID-19 pandemic had exacerbated delays to sexual crime cases, which could have a “significant impact on parties involved in the case”, finding 16 of the cases it was investigating “had already been subject to delay prior to COVID-19”.

Worryingly, the inspectorate said: “We could not find a record in all cases of victims and victims having been updated about the impact of COVID-19 pandemic on their case.

“We recognise that during the early lockdown period, VIA [Victim Information and Advice Service] staff will have faced significant challenges in delivering their service as they switched to working from home and developed new working practices.

“It is our view that contact should be made with all victims in post-indictment sexual crime cases to provide them with an update about the status of their case and the impact of COVID-19 on the justice system, even if the exact impact of COVID-19 delays on their individual case is not yet known.

“Since we revisited the post-indictment cases, COPFS has advised that all victims will be updated in line with the preference each expressed when their victim strategy was carried out, and a letter will also be sent to all victims regarding the impact of COVID-19.” 

Rape Crisis Scotland chief executive Sandy Brindley told Holyrood the issues shown in the report “are deeply entrenched in a system that was not designed with survivors of rape, sexual assault and abuse in mind”.

“The areas of improvement within this report show that where there is the will and commitment to act change is possible. What this report also finds echoes very closely with what survivors of sexual violence tell us about severe delays and poor communication,” Brindley said.

“Given the known impact of both these oftentimes devastating factors on the mental health and general wellbeing of those who have reported sexual crimes it’s unacceptable that more action has not been taken to remedy these specifically. 

“These issues are not new, they are deeply entrenched in a system that was not designed with survivors of rape, sexual assault and abuse in mind. For a long time survivors alongside organisations including Rape Crisis Scotland have been advocating for necessary changes and critically for compassion to be woven into the justice response. There is still a very long way to go.

“COVID has of course had a huge impact on the issues raised in the report, making an already intolerable situation worse. We are deeply concerned about the impact of the backlog of cases on survivors who often describe feeling as though their lives are put on hold as they await trial. Those with the power to act must use it.”

On delays to cases, HM Chief Inspector of Prosecution in Scotland Laura Paton said this may have “a serious impact on victims, witnesses and the accused”.

“Delays risk victims and witnesses disengaging from the criminal justice process and risk them losing confidence in the criminal justice system,” she said.

“Delays may also put at risk their ability to give their best evidence when the trial finally takes place, and may limit their ability to move on from what may well be the most traumatic experience of their lives.

“It is therefore imperative that all agencies within the criminal justice system work together to minimise delay and ensure the system operates as efficiently and effectively as possible. This is particularly important given that the volume of police recorded sexual crime has continued to rise since our 2017 report and represents a significant proportion of all High Court cases.”

And on issues in the quality of communication with victims, Paton said: “While some victims receive a good and improving service from a member of staff dedicated to their case, others experience delays and gaps in communication.

“We have made three new recommendations, all aimed at supporting further improvements in communicating with and supporting victims.”

The three new recommendations were that COPFS should: ensure the victim strategy is initiated within a “reasonable time in all cases, regardless of their procedural history and status”; work with police to ensure processes for communicating with victims and witnesses who are looked after children take account of their individual circumstances; and work with police to ensure that a “police victim strategy is submitted in all appropriate cases and in accordance with agreed timescales”.

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