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Pressure on sheriff court system 'mounting'

Pressure on sheriff court system 'mounting'

Pressures on the sheriff court system are “mounting” with a third of criminal cases taking more than six months to be concluded, according to the public spending watchdog.

Audit Scotland reported a rise in the average time for cases to be concluded against a backdrop of reducing budgets and more complex cases, such as historical sexual offences and domestic abuse.

A greater proportion of cases are going to trial while performance against a target to have summary cases - less serious offences which are not heard by a jury - completed within 26 weeks has fallen each year since 2010-11.

More than one in ten (11 per cent) summary cases took more than a year to reach a verdict in 2014-15, up 29 per cent from 4,773 cases in 2010-11 to 6,153 in the 12 months to April this year.

Almost half of summary cases did not proceed as planned in sheriff courts last year, with Audit Scotland estimating the cost of repeating stages unnecessarily – commonly known as ‘churn’ – at £10m a year.

It comes as the Scottish Court Service faced a real terms cut to their total budget of 28 per cent and the Crown Office 14 per cent in the space of five years, a higher reduction than the overall Scottish budget.

Caroline Gardner, Auditor General for Scotland, said: "Like many parts of the public sector, the sheriff court system is facing falling budgets. Together with an increasing focus on cases which are more complex, this is putting pressure on the system as a whole.

“To deal with this, all the bodies involved in our sheriff court system must continue to develop how they work together, both nationally and locally."

The watchdog said the Scottish Government’s justice board had improved joint working at a national level and helped manage a 10 per cent increase in the number of cases the year before last.

The number of accused people awaiting trial at the end of 2014-15 rose to over 22,000 – despite a reduction in the overall number of accused.

Scottish Labour justice spokesperson Graeme Pearson claimed the SNP administration’s record on justice is “nothing short of criminal”.

“Having a court case dragged out longer than it absolutely has to be can be a hugely stressful experience,” he said.

“Obviously people working in courts are doing the best they can but they are not helped by the SNP Government in Edinburgh’s decision to shut down local courts and slash budgets.”

Scottish Conservative justice spokeswoman Margaret Mitchell added: “Instead of supporting our vital courts system the decisions the SNP government has consciously made over recent years have done quite the opposite.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said funding allocated to the courts and Crown had reduced in the time since 2010-11 “due to overall cuts imposed by the Westminster Government”.

“We have responded to these pressures, with major reform of the court system and merger of the Courts and Tribunals administration, while maintaining wide and effective access to justice,” she added.

“We are committed to ensuring that criminal cases are managed as efficiently as possible. In 2014-15 we provided £1.47m in additional funding for extra fiscals, court staff and judiciary, to help speed up the delivery of justice and this year we have committed £2.4m to ensure swift progress of cases involving domestic abuse and sexual violence.”

A Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service spokesman said: “With additional funding in place to support SCTS staff, fiscals and judiciary the increased business is being accommodated, outstanding trials are reducing and the majority of courts can now make trial dates available within the optimum period of 16 weeks.”

Measures used to gauge performance across the sheriff court system are being reviewed to make them “more meaningful to the public in the future”, the spokesman added.

It comes after Audit Scotland recommended that agencies across the criminal justice sector provide a “broader” picture of the performance of the court system beyond the 26-week target.

A Crown Office spokesman said: “The report acknowledges that we are conducting more trials with less funding than was previously available and that more of our trials are complex.

“The Crown has set up a range of specialist units in recent years, which has equipped us with the necessary expertise to prosecute such cases effectively.

“The report complements our moves towards modernising the way we contact witnesses including the use of text messages and we are planning to make further use of technology to deliver improvements in the near future.”

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