'Difficult decisions' needed on prosecutions due to budget cuts

High Court, Glasgow
Image caption Prosecutors say a rising workload has led to mistakes being made in court cases

Complex cases such as stalking are not being given the high priority the government claims they are, senior prosecutors have said.

In a submission to Holyrood's justice committee they called the claims "a fraud."

They said the Crown Office budget has been slashed by 23.8% in eight years, and warned difficult decisions must be made about cutting some of their work.

The government said the Crown Office received a real terms budget rise.

The process of MSPs scrutinising the government's draft budget begins on Tuesday - and the justice committee will take evidence from Scotland's senior prosecutor, Lord Advocate James Wolffe.

He has already said the budget for the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) is satisfactory, but the committee said some of the evidence it had received disputed this.

'Insufficient for the demands'

In its submission, the Procurators Fiscal Society section of the senior civil service union FDA said: "Either COPFS requires to be adequately resourced or alternatively, political decisions are required of those in government to appropriately review the commitment required from the service and make choices about what they want the prosecution service of Scotland to deliver.

"FDA's view is that current resources are insufficient for the additional demands placed on and increased workload of the service.

"It is time either for the commitment to match the resources or for those difficult decisions to be made about what aspects of the service and work that we currently undertake will we stop doing."

It submitted extracts from a survey of its members who reported they were increasingly unable to deliver an effective service.

They said a rising workload, particularly in High Court business, led to mistakes being made.

One respondent said: "Advance preparation trials (often stalking cases) are a fraud.

"We tell victims and the public these cases are given high priority when the reality is that they are allocated to a trials depute who is not then allocated preparation time and just has to fit them in with the rest of the workload."

Image caption Lord Advocate James Wolffe has told MSPs his budget is sufficient, but MSPs say evidence disputes this

Justice committee convener Margaret Mitchell said: "The committee has expressed concern and warned that if the COPFS' workload is not addressed there will be gravely adverse consequences for Scotland's prosecution system.

"We do not want there to be a major tragedy or a trial thrown into question before this problem is taken seriously.

"During last year's budget scrutiny, the Lord Advocate told us he was satisfied the budget was sufficient. However, some of the evidence we have received disputes this, and speaks of a deeply troubling situation."

Additional funding

The Scottish government said its draft budget for 2018/9 would provide more than £11 m for COPFS - a real-terms increase, including additional funding for staff costs.

A spokesman said: "The Scottish government has provided additional funding of £2.4m in each year since 2015-16, towards the courts and Crown Office, in addition to their budget allocations, for extra fiscals, court staff and judiciary to help deal with cases involving domestic abuse and sexual offences.

"This funding has been baselined into the announced budgets for the Courts and Crown Office in 2018/19."

Crown Agent David Harvie, the professional head of the service, said he welcomed the increase in its budget for the forthcoming year.

He said: "The profile of the service's casework continues to evolve and we must meet the challenges that this presents.‎

"For example, over the last year we have seen a 50 per cent increase in serious sexual crimes reported to the service

"We will continue to serve the people of Scotland and find ways of getting the most from our budget, through reducing non staff costs and supporting our skilled and dedicated people to prosecute crime, and investigate deaths, effectively."

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