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Lord Advocate tells Holyrood his own Fiscals are wrong over claims of case backlog & ‘stress’ as £108 million pours into failing Crown Office

29 Oct

Scotland’s Lord Advocate Frank Mulholland refutes Procurator Fiscals claims to msps they were short of staff, money. LORD ADVOCATE Frank Mulholland, head of Scotland’s staggeringly expensive and often criticised Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) which received £108.2 MILLION POUNDS from the Scottish Government to ‘fight crime’ has today been forced to defend his department’s prosecution of criminal cases after evidence was submitted by the Procurators Fiscal Society earlier this week to the Scottish Parliament alleging a huge backlog of cases were building up because of staff cutbacks, work related stress and other failures attributed to, but not in so many words, the budget cuts forced on all public services by the recession.

Earlier this week, a written submission (pdf) from the Procurators Fiscal Society to Holyrood’s Justice Committee, in response to the committee’s call for written evidence on the Scottish Government’s Draft Budget 2012-13 and Spending Review 2011, alleged the reduction in staff numbers within the COPFS was damaging the justice system.

The Procurators Fiscal Society told MSPs : We believe we can evidence the impact that reducing staff numbers is already having on performance targets by looking at the increasing number of unmarked reported cases.

Looking back only 6 months to April of this year there were approximately 7,000 unmarked cases, and of those only c. 1,300 of them were over 4 weeks old.

As at 16 October 2011 there were nearly 14,000 unmarked cases. This is 52% higher than the same point in 2010/2011 and 100% higher than only six months previously. When looking at the number of those cases which are more than 4 weeks old (the performance target being to take and implement a decision (mark) within 4 weeks), these account for approximately 31% (c. 4,300) of all the unmarked cases.

The submission from the Procurators Fiscals Society also claimed a number of staff on fixed term contracts have not been replaced, and many of the previous years ‘trainee solicitors’ with the COPFS had not been offered new contracts. The PFS told msps COPFS is already operating with significantly fewer legal staff and that there is work in the offices that cannot be done within existing resources and targets.

However, a statement released today by the Crown Office ‘sought to correct’ some of the claims by the Procurators Fiscal Society to the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee, setting the Lord Advocate firmly against some of the PFS claims, in attempts to reassure msps who may be minded to take a closer inspection of Scotland’s widely disrespected prosecution service.

The Crown Office statement :

The Lord Advocate, Frank Mulholland QC has written to Christine Grahame MSP, Convener of the Scottish Parliament Justice Committee to confirm that workload and staffing levels within the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) are sufficient to deal with local increases in numbers of cases that have been reported by the police in recent weeks to some Procurator Fiscal offices.

The Lord Advocate reassured the Committee that some misleading and erroneous assertions in various media reports had been made around the written submission by the Procurator Fiscal Society (PFS) on 25 October to the Committee in relation to its scrutiny of the Draft Budget 2012/13 & Spending Review 2011.

He said: “Within the constraints on the public purse, COPFS has been given priority in the Spending Review. Its total budget in 2014/15 will be £108.7M compared with £108.2M this year. “The COPFS aims to take a decision in 75% of cases within 4 weeks of reports being submitted by the police who aim to report 80% of cases within 28 days of caution and charge. For the year to date COPFS is currently meeting the target in 84% of cases. COPFS and the police also work closely together to ensure that cases which are reported are processed by both organisations to comply with statutory timebars.”

“COPFS has sufficient staff to deliver a modern prosecution service for Scotland. Although there have been recent localised increases in reports submitted to Procurators Fiscal, our use of modern IT systems to move the work around the country as necessary means that COPFS responds more effectively to such fluctuations than ever before.”

“There is no risk that our present staffing levels would lead to cases in our current workload becoming subject to timebar. The number of cases awaiting decision as at the start of this week amounted to just over 2 weeks of the average weekly reports received from the police, which is normal and is an acceptable level of “work in progress”.

The Lord Advocate also clarified that the COPFS does have sufficient staff and there has been no overall increase in the number of cases reported to COPFS each year. He said: “By mid year this year COPFS had 513 lawyers compared with 505 in mid year 2009. “The annual number of cases received by COPFS has decreased and has been running at below 280,000 since 2009/10 compared with 320,000 in 2005/06 (when COPFS had 433 lawyers).”

The PFS submission to the Committee also made reference to COPFS not employing former trainee solicitors. The Lord Advocate set out the COPFS position: “It has never been the case that a legal traineeship with COPFS guaranteed a permanent post upon qualification as a solicitor. COPFS have work which is ideally suited to legal trainees and see the operation of a training programme as financially efficient as well as providing crucial investment in the future of the Scottish legal system. We also see this as an opportunity to put something back into the profession and give high quality legal graduates the opportunity to qualify as a solicitor. COPFS offers an excellent traineeship and all who have trained with us are well placed to apply for positions across the legal profession.“

The Procurators Fiscal Society represents over 300 members of mainly legal staff within COPFS. It began in 1930 as a professional association, and operated for over 60 years on that basis. In the early 1990s the Society became a section of First Division Association – the trade union representing senior managers and professionals in the Civil Service.

The current spat between the Lord Advocate & the Procurators Fiscal Society are a world away from the relationship under previous administrations wherelavish dinners held in honour of the PFS’ 75 year anniversary saw then Lord Advocate Colin Boyd praise the society, saying : “I am very pleased to be here to mark the 75th anniversary of the Procurators Fiscal Society. The Service and the Society have a long tradition of working together to serve the public.”

However, there are many who doubt the COPFS actually serve society and the public interest, after investigations by Diary of Injustice & the Sunday Mail newspaper revealedthe Crown Office REFUSED to prosecute FOURTEEN solicitors for legal aid fraud involving huge sums of public money. An additional investigation by Diary of Injustice revealed one of the alleged fraudsters who the Crown Office refused to prosecute, was married to a Procurator Fiscal.

Clearly the Justice Committee should make the time for a full investigation into Scotland’s Crown Office and how the criminal justice system does not make the punishment fit the crime, when vested interests collide.

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