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CASH IN THE CROWN: Forget millions on bonuses, mortgages, junkets & dodgy prosecutions – Holyrood Crown Office probe raises concerns, recommends changes for £113m ‘under-resourced’ & untrustworthy Prosecution service

30 Apr

Scots Prosecutors ‘getting by’ on £113m a year. SCOTLAND’S PROSECUTORS are “just about managing” on £113million a year of taxpayers cash – according to a report produced by the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee of the ‘Role and Purpose of the Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS).

During the ‘bombshell’ inquiry into the Crown Office – an organisation once dubbed ‘the most corrupt institution in Scotland’ by a Cabinet minister – the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee heard claims COPFS staff suffered from shortage of resources,weak morale – including more than average levels of sick leave, claims of overwork.

MSPs also heard grips from the Lord Advocate – James Wolffe QC and his team over the level of public cash thrown at the infamous Edinburgh based Crown Office which now stands at a whopping £112.5million a year – according to figures in the Scottish Government’s own budget for 2016.

The report – into the ‘crime fighting’ Crown Office – which refused to prosecute the driver of the Glasgow bin lorry which left six people dead and injured 15 others in the centre of Glasgow – 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 also identified room for improvement in a number of Crown Office functions, including the support given to victims and witnesses – who are often poorly treated by COPFS staff.

However – during 2014 it was reported a senior manager in the Crown Office was suspended after openly criticising the treatment of crime victims.

John Fox, 47, made postings on an internal staff forum accusing his bosses of putting victims of domestic violence at risk. His criticism emerged days after the Sunday Mail newspaper revealed how victims of crime felt betrayed by Scotland’s justice system and were demanding reforms.

Mr Fox was formerly in charge of the 100-strong Victim Information and Advice Service (VIA), responsible for helping to improve services to crime victims and their families across Scotland. One of their tasks is to inform victims of domestic violence about the release from custody of the person charged with attacking them.

In some cases, victims of crime and witness have since alleged Crown Office employees told outright lies.

And, a recent investigation by the media reported key Crown Office employees hold secret criminal convictions for serious offences. The investigation, assisted by documents obtained by Freedom of Information legislation published here: Prosecutors own crime gang revealed  also found some victims and witnesses to crime had been threatened by Crown Office prosecutors and staff.

In a period of just two years – from November 2013 to November 2015 – the Crown Office admitted it retained records showing 15 cases reported to COPFS containing allegations of criminal offences by COPFS staff. Court proceedings were taken in 11 cases, three cases were disposed of by non-court disposal and no proceedings were taken in one case.

The charges brought against staff include assault and vandalism; road traffic offences; threatening and abusive conduct; breach of the peace; Misuse of drugs and offences against the police; data protection offences and an attempt to pervert the course of justice.

The Holyrood enquiry was apparently not handed any of this information. The inquiry did not take  steps to act upon it and quiz COPFS representatives, despite reports being available in the media  and to the inquiry – for some time.

Much of the inquiry’s focus on staff morale heard claims the Crown Office was underfunded and overworked, however figures revealed in a Freedom of Information request for the immediate three years after the collapse of several high street banks & huge cuts to public services – revealed successive Lord Advocates have spent over £572,307,16 on paying supposedly hard up staff everything from mortgages, relocation, rental costs and even phone bills, council tax and personal legal bills.

During financial year 2008/2009, payments made by COPFS for housing, rent or relocation allowances, or help with mortgages to 32 employees were: £212,500.76.
During financial year 2009/2010, payments made by COPFS for housing, rent or relocation allowances, or help with mortgages to 38  employees were £242,586.59.
During financial year 2010/2011, payments made by COPFS for housing, rent or relocation allowances, or help with mortgages to  26 employees were £117,220.14.

The cash expenses & junkets claims from COPFS staff continue, with figures released in another Freedom of Information request revealing a whopping £137,744.43 spent on further staff perks and junkets in 2014-2016. The FOI revealed:

During financial year 2011/2012, payments made by COPFS for housing, rent or relocation allowances, or help with mortgages to 16 employees were £85,513.21.
During financial year 2012/2013,payments made by COPFS for housing, rent or relocation allowances, or help with mortgages to   8 employees were £38,711.35.
During financial year 2013/2014, payments made by COPFS for housing, rent or relocation allowances, or help with mortgages to  5 employees were £13,519.87.

The cash expenses & junkets claims from COPFS staff continue, with figures released in another Freedom of Information request revealing a further £28,090 spent on further staff mortgages, rent , phone bills, legal bills and other perks and junkets in 2014-2016. However, these figures are now thought to be in dispute – and of a much higher sum than was originally quoted by the Crown Office. Nevertheless the FOI revealed:

Payments made by COPFS for housing, rent or relocation allowances, or help with mortgages, for COPFS staff including Procurators Fiscal from 1 April 2014 to 31 March 2016, were made by 33  COPFS employees, totalling an extra £28,090.

A separate Freedom of Information request revealed the hard-up Crown Office media unit spent over £376,168.06 in one year alone on media relations – this despite the Lord Advocate’s staff of 6 full time media staff and one part time employee – operating a policy of “no comment” to journalists – who are in increasing numbers of cases told to put their request for comment in a Freedom of Information request.

And, an investigation by the Sunday Mail newspaper in 2011 established the Lord Advocate had authorised massive bonuses for Crown Office staff who pocketed bonus payments of more than £580,000 in just two years.

Figures released via Freedom of Information requests revealed 419 COPFS employees shared payouts totalling £326,844 in 2009-2010, while 518 COPFS staff were handed £253,330 for 2010-11.

In 2009-2010, eight employees of the Crown Office received Bonuses of up to £20,000 while a further 15 COPFS employees received bonuses of up to £8,000.

In the same year up to 200 members of staff received bonus pay-outs of up to £500 while a further 200 COPFS employees were paid bonuses of up to £1000 each.

And, an investigation by the Scottish Sun newspaper revealed supposedly hard up Crown Office staff were travelling to international destinations all bankrolled by taxpayers cash.

The allegedly hard up Crown Office spent more than £57,000 of taxpayers’ cash last year alone flying staff across the globe. Hong Kong, Mauritius, Taiwan and New York were among 15 exotic destinations visited by Crown Office employees. And since 2012, they have taken off on a total of 109 international flights to places like South Africa, Australia and Malta.

The Crown, led by Lord Advocate Frank Mulholland, racked up £29,504 on 39 international flights to meetings and conferences last year and £27,603 on 143 domestic trips.The number of overseas flights has remained fairly steady over three years at 36, 34 then 39. But domestic flights have increased sharply from 97 to 131, then 143 last year.

Amsterdam was the most common destination, with 30 trips since 2012. The Dutch city is a major travel hub and close to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Flights to Washington DC and Malta were in connection with the ongoing probe into the 1988 Lockerbie bombing.

While the information has been available in the public arena for some time, COPFS representatives appearing in front of the Justice Committee did not face any lines of questioning of the massive cash spends on personal junkets, mortgages, rent and other bills accumulated by staff who managed to have them all paid off by taxpayers.

The Justice Committee also had to make do without attendance of Scotland’s top judge and other members of the judiciary after Lord Carloway issued a letter to all branches level of the judiciary informing them of his decision to refuse to give evidence to the Justice Committee’s probe into the Crown Office.

Lord Carloway  – who earns £222,862 a year for his role as Lord President & Lord Justice General – said the Scottish Courts & Tribunals Service (SCTS) should give evidence to the Justice Committee, rather than individual members of the judiciary – even retired ones

Carloway’s letter went out to every high court judge, the Sheriffs’ Association and the Scottish Justices Association (SJA) – which represents Justices of the Peace.

After Lord Carloway’s decision to refuse to attend the Justice Committee was made known – the SJA pulled out of its scheduled appearance in front of MSPs.

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.

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

Ms Mitchell continued: “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.”

Justice Committee report – Role and Purpose of the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service

Focussing on areas of Crown Office operation, the following excerpts are reproduced from the Committee’s final report:

Digital strategy

110. The “vision” of the Digital Strategy, published in 2014, is “to have modern, user-focused justice systems which use digital justice technology to deliver simple, fast and effective justice at best cost”. It is estimated by the Scottish Government that full implementation of the strategy across the entire justice sector (including the administrative and civil spheres) could save some £20-25 million per annum. The strategy sets out three objectives—

allow people and businesses to access the right information at the right time, principally by expanding online the amount of available information about the justice system. This objective also includes a commitment, by the end of 2017, to enable victims of crime to track their case online;

fully digitised justice systems;

make data work for us, ie collect and use data including stakeholder feedback to develop a more efficient and responsive justice system.

111. It is the second of these objectives that appears to have most potential to unlock efficiencies in the prosecution system, particularly in tandem with complementary reforms envisaged under the Evidence and Procedure Review. It includes plans for—

a “digital evidence vault” enabling the secure storage of all digital evidence in civil and criminal cases;

greatly increased use of live video links to reduce the need for accused, victims and witnesses to have to come to court in all instances;

the serving of more court documentation (eg arrest warrants) digitally; and

disclosure by the COPFS of all evidence to defence agents electronically.

112. The strategy also envisages the police being equipped with body-worn cameras and the integration of all legacy force ICT services within Police Scotland. The Committee notes the potential impact of these objectives on the prosecution of crimes, although they are not within the direct remit of this inquiry. Scrutiny of these issues is within the current work programme of the Justice Sub-Committee on Policing

and on

Evidence and Procedure Review

113. Lord Carloway’s March 2015 Evidence and Procedure Review concluded that the conduct of criminal trials needs to change because the process had not kept pace with entry into a digital age. The main recommendations related to—

child and vulnerable witnesses: as much as possible, taking evidence from them should be removed from the courtroom setting;

digital evidence: audio and video witness statements should ordinarily be admissible. This was seen as paving the way for the elimination of written witness statements, in most cases, in the future;

modernising criminal trial procedures: in essence, shifting the weight of trial preparation to earlier in the process, in part through greater judicial case management. Trial dates should only be fixed when it is clear that the case will be ready to run on the relevant date.

114. This was followed by a February 2016 “next steps” paper, setting out proposals on which the SCTS is currently working.158 These are intended to build on Lord Carloway’s three main recommendations and to align with relevant objectives in the digital strategy. The overall vision is of a more streamlined criminal justice system, with far less evidence having to be led in the courtroom.

115. As set out in the preceding section, the Lord Advocate and Crown Agent both indicated the COPFS’s readiness for reform, and said they saw real opportunities for progress, particularly in relation to the work of the Evidence and Procedure Review.The Crown Agent said the goal was to crystallise as much evidence as possible in advance of the actual trial.160 Amongst other things, this would greatly reduce the need for witnesses to attend trials – and the non-attendance of witnesses is one of the main causes of churn.

116. The Cabinet Secretary also set out his strong support for the Review. However, he referred in addition to a need for a “cultural change” on the part of all stakeholders if the full benefits of the Review were to be realised. He indicated that legislation would be required at some point to implement elements of the Review.

and on ‘Specialist Prosecutions’ MSPs heard evidence from a former COPFS Prosecutor linked to events in the David Goodwillie rape case – where the victim was forced to sue her assailant through the civil courts after the Lord Advocate refused to prosecute the footballer.

Specialist prosecutions

167. The Committee sought views on whether the COPFS had the appropriate skillsets it needed to carry out its prosecutorial role. This includes prosecuting the wide range of different crimes that the COPFS may encounter, ranging from historic child sexual abuse to corporate accounting fraud. As noted elsewhere in the report, the COPFS has moved towards greater specialisation in recent years, setting up offices dealing with sexual offences, serious and organised crime, and international cooperation, amongst others. The Committee notes that, in a relatively small jurisdiction such as Scotland, there are limits to this approach. There may be some types of case that only come before the criminal courts a handful of times in a few years, but which are of a particular complexity. It is hard to build up specialist expertise in such cases. Derek Ogg QC, a former head of the COPFS sexual offences unit told the Committee that, if there is considered to be a lack of in-house specialism to prosecute particularly complex crimes coming before the High Court, this could be addressed by borrowing that expertise; recruiting “locum” advocates depute with experience in that field for the duration of the case.

168. Some submissions expressed the view that the COPFS did not always have the specialist skillsets needed to prosecute certain types of crime as effectively as it should, for instance corporate or regulatory offences.HM Revenue and Customs gave positive evidence about its working relationship with the COPFS in the prosecution of crimes in which it was involved, although it indicated that the COPFS’s relative under-resourcing in some areas, for instance technology, sometimes put it under strain.

Centralised policy-making and local autonomy

184. The COPFS is a national service aspiring to achieve consistently high standards across Scotland. It is in the public interest that both accused and victims should expect the same professional standard of prosecution wherever their case calls. There was a consensus in evidence that the COPFS has become a more centralised organisation in recent years. Some evidence broadly welcomed this, but the Committee also heard views that this process had gone too far; to the point where it was impacting negatively on the COPFS’s effectiveness as a public prosecutor. Whether the COPFS was striking the right balance between pursuing centrally driven policies and letting local prosecutors take their own decisions emerged as one of the key themes of the inquiry.

Specialisation and central case-marking

185. A closely related issue is that of specialisation. In effect, specialisation is a form of centralisation, as it means that a small group of specialist prosecutors will tend to determine national approach to prosecuting particular crimes wherever they occur.

186. Specialisation has included the setting up a case-marking unit around 15 years ago. Local fiscals no longer mark cases at the initial stage of the prosecution. Instead, there are two centres – at Paisley and Stirling – where practically all cases are now marked. As the Committee understands it, the case marking process may involve not only a determination as to whether or not a case should be prosecuted, but further instructions on how to handle the case, for instance whether to accept plea bargains and, if so, on what basis.

Other types of specialisation

187. The setting up of a national sexual crimes unit at the COPFS in 2009 was welcomed by many stakeholders. They thought it had led to such cases (which now constitute around 70% of all High Court cases) being better handled at least at a strategic and policy level, with the views and interests of victims and their advocates better taken account of. This was the view of organisations including Scottish Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis. Susan Gallagher of Victim Support Scotland told the Committee that her organisation’s experience of centralisation – or specialisation – as it applied to victims was largely positive; it was when the Victim Information and Advice service had become more decentralised that inconsistency had crept back in.As noted above, the setting up of a specialist wildlife crime unit was also welcomed by stakeholders as having helped professionalise the COPFS’s approach to these offences.

Views from COPFS representatives

199. The FDA, representing fiscals, took a balanced view of the move towards a more centralised and more specialist service in recent year, recognising that it had its advantages and disadvantages. However, it was overall considered to have been positive. In relation to case-marking, the union’s Rachael Weir told the Committee that she considered it had been beneficial because it had led to greater specialist expertise in case marking being built up.

200. As noted elsewhere in the report, the Lord Advocate publicly affirmed his confidence in COPFS staff as the organisation’s “greatest asset” and expressed his “absolute trust and confidence in the judgment of those who prosecute on my behalf up and down the country”. However, the COPFS also made clear in its evidence to the Committee that one of the drivers of the move towards centralisation had been a desire to achieve greater consistency, and a higher quality public service overall.Overall, nothing in the COPFS’s evidence indicated to the Committee that the COPFS was minded to fundamentally reconsider its approach, in the light of views that had been expressed. The Lord Advocate cited learned authority from the 19th century that it was his role to ensure “the due and equal distribution of criminal justice”, so that all may have equal protection under the law, in order to underline that the concept of achieving consistency in prosecution policy was not a new one. It was his view that the current system did allow for some flexibility—

The system can accommodate matters that are of concern in local areas. Indeed, in their reports, the police might identify a particular issue as being a matter of concern. I can put it in this way: through having a national approach, we can ensure that, where there is justification for a variation from the norm to be applied in a particular locality, that is done consistently and does not depend on the views of a particular individual in a particular local area.

201. The Crown Agent said that previous less centralised models had run into problems of their own, such as some courts sitting until late evening. He said that the current system had brought greater professionalism and consistency. Inasmuch as it had probably brought down the number of court sittings, it may have reduced overall costs, although that was not, he stressed, the main reason behind the policy.In relation to the comments of the GBA and others that the current decision-making approach to individual cases can appear opaque and unnecessarily hierarchical, the Crown Agent acknowledged that there was, or had been an issue, explaining that recent internal reforms had led to the number of “approval levels” for ongoing cases being rationalised, with the grade for approval reduced to a local level.

Diversions and local knowledge

202. The Lord Advocate explained to the Committee that teams at the two central case-marking centres are organised by reference to Scotland’s six sheriffdoms. He argued this helped enable case-markers to develop local knowledge of particular areas. In relation to diversions from prosecution, the Lord Advocate said he had reflected on the evidence and posed an open question as to whether it indicated a lack of consistency across the country on the availability of diversion schemes as much as any perceived lack of local knowledge on the part of case markers.

203. Supplementary written evidence from the Crown Agent queried SACRO’s evidence that there had been a trend away from referrals to restorative justice schemes, arguing that it was not strongly supported in the follow-up information SACRO had itself provided to the Committee. The COPFS’s own statistics had indicated a gradual rise in the number of diversions from prosecution over the course of the current decade.The Committee notes that it would require further analysis to determine the extent to which diversions by case markers appear to have had outcomes that could be described as successful.

204. The Crown Agent’s written evidence also queried the JPs’ evidence to the Committee, which he interpreted as being to the effect that—

…prosecutors issue direct measures to avoid the expense of prosecuting cases in court. This is inaccurate and contrary to the Lord Advocate’s policies on decision making. The Scottish Parliament has given prosecutors a range of powers to take action against offenders and we seek to make effective use of all these powers.

205. Both the COPFS and the SCTS referred to statistics indicating that around 80% of direct measures consisting of fines or fixed penalties end up being paid.

206. The Committee notes the COPFS’s view that a drive towards increased centralisation and specialisation is likely to have helped it become a more efficient and professional organisation. The setting up of specialist prosecution units (for instance in relation to sexual offences) has been broadly welcomed. However, evidence has made clear that some trade-offs have been involved. It has been concerning to note evidence that local fiscals may sometimes find themselves running cases against their own professional judgment. The Committee also notes views that increased centralisation may have had an effect on morale and job satisfaction in local offices.

207. The Committee seeks clarification from the COPFS that consideration of the autonomy and decision-making capacity of local fiscals is being taken forward in its current “Fair Futures” programme being developed in consultation with its staff.

208. The Committee notes views that the centralisation of case marking has led to an erosion of knowledge as to the availability of local schemes and programmes where case markers are considering alternatives to prosecution. The Committee asks the Scottish Government to consider whether, if these perceptions are valid, Community Justice Scotland could be invited to address them in its ongoing work to develop a new model for community justice delivery.

209. More generally, the Committee asks the COPFS and Scottish Government as to what monitoring there is of the effectiveness of diversion from prosecution and whether and how the results of that monitoring are fed back to the COPFS for continuous improvement purposes.

Now, turning to the recommendations of the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee – funding of the Crown Office comes into sharp focus, despite evidence of massive waste of millions of pounds of taxpayers cash on Crown Office staff:

Recommendations: Resources and funding of the COPFS

The COPFS, in common with agencies across the public sector, has faced significant challenges as a result of a prolonged period of flat-lining budgets. This looks set to continue into 2017-18. The Committee notes the Lord Advocate’s remarks that he considered his 2017-18 budget to be a “sound settlement” that will enable him to continue to provide a fundamentally effective prosecution service.

For the most part, the COPFS has coped in this tougher financial environment as well as can be expected, and its frontline staff deserve credit and recognition for their resilience under sometimes difficult circumstances. It would be unreasonable for the COPFS to continue to rely on the resilience of its staff indefinitely. The Committee considers that change is necessary before the risks that are undoubtedly embedded in the prosecution system, as presently constituted, begin to crystallise.

The Committee agrees with evidence from the COPFS and the Cabinet Secretary for Justice that more efficient ways need to be found to manage the whole prosecution process. Whilst the COPFS is the single most important organisation involved in managing the prosecution process, it cannot achieve this reform on its own. The Committee notes that it is expected that change will be primarily driven by the cross-agency Justice Board, on which the COPFS is represented, and expects the Lord Advocate and Cabinet Secretary to provide the necessary backing for the Board as it proceeds in implementing key elements of the Justice Strategy

The Lord Advocate and Crown Agent have acknowledged in evidence that there is a need to address staffing concerns dating back several years. Above average numbers of staff on short-term contracts, on sick leave, or in long-term temporary promotions are danger signs. The Committee is pleased the current leadership appears to recognise this, to be listening to staff, and to be looking for ways to deal with these issues. The Committee will continue to maintain a watching brief on this issue and requests an update on staffing matters from the COPFS when it responds to this report.

In relations to matters such as job satisfaction and work-life balance, returns from staff surveys in recent years have been concerning. The Committee notes some evidence that, in these areas, the organisation might now be making progress. The Committee also notes evidence and public statements from the Lord Advocate that he has confidence in the judgment of his prosecutors and trusts them to take decisions in his name. However, it is still very early days and, in this context, indications that the COPFS may have to shed around 30 staff in 2017-18 to deal with real-terms budget cuts are worrying. It is difficult to see, given the current pressures staff are under, how further losses are sustainable. The Committee seeks clarification from the COPFS on the operational rationale for job losses and where they will fall.

The Committee also warns the COPFS against an over-reliance on digital solutions to deliver greater efficiencies.

Efficiency of the prosecution service

“Churn” – adjournment and delay of cases scheduled for trial – is one of the main sources of frustration for anyone having to engage with the prosecution process. The Committee accepts that a degree of churn is inevitable and unavoidable, but evidence received over the inquiry indicates that it remains unacceptably high.

The Committee accepts that the problem of delay and inefficiency in the prosecution process cannot be solved by the COPFS acting on its own. The Committee also accepts that churn is a part-consequence of the COPFS’s limited staffing resources, but calls on the COPFS to find methods of mitigating it. For instance, it should be within the capacity of the COPFS to develop more efficient and effective means of notifying those whose attendance is no longer required at a trial. The Committee asks the COPFS and the Scottish Government to take this forward within the Justice Digital Strategy.

The Committee notes evidence that 80% of Crown motions to adjourn arise because of the non-attendance of witnesses. Giving evidence in a trial is a civic duty and failure to do so can be deemed a contempt of court. The Committee accepts that there can be understandable reasons why witnesses do not attend a hearing, but seeks clarification from COPFS and Scottish Government as to: what measures are in place to encourage and, if necessary, ensure witness attendance; the extent to which these measures are being used; and whether alternative approaches are being considered over and above whatever may emerge in due course from the Evidence and Procedure Review.

No blame can be attached to witnesses for non-attendance when they have not in fact been cited to attend court. The Committee is concerned by evidence that the process is sometimes unreliable. The Committee asks the Scottish Government, COPFS and SCTS whether it accepts this evidence and, if so, what measures are being considered to address this, including for instance, the Sheriffs’ Association suggestion of a dedicated COPFS unit to issue citations.

Proposals set out in the Evidence and Procedure Review and the Justice Digital Strategy are welcome and, in some cases, long overdue. Aspects of current criminal law procedure could rightly be described as archaic. The Committee notes the potential for considerable savings to be made if far fewer witnesses are required to attend court and are able to give their evidence in other ways.

However, the Committee notes with concern that the timetable for implementation of some aspects of the Digital Strategy has slipped, with some targets already missed. The Committee further notes that there appears to be no public timetable for implementing the Evidence and Procedure Review.

The Committee asks for a progress report from the Scottish Government in respect of each main element of the Review and the Strategy, setting out the timescale, the anticipated effect on the prosecution process, and where possible, the projected cost saving in relation to each such element.

The Committee also asks for an update from the Scottish Government as to what legislative changes it envisages may be required to unlock the full potential of the Evidence and Procedure Review and the Justice Digital Strategy, and what plans it has in respect of these.

The Committee seeks further information from the Scottish Government as to how proposals to encourage increased judicial case management in the context of criminal proceedings will be progressed and what additional support, if any (eg training), it envisages the judiciary may require in this modified role.

The Committee also seeks further information from the Scottish Government as to whether additional funding will be required to fully implement the Digital Strategy and the Evidence and Procedure Review and, if so, whether these have been costed and what proportion of these costs fall on the COPFS.

Given acknowledged difficulties with the delivery of major IT projects in the public sector, the Committee is concerned that there should not be an over-reliance on information technology to drive reform in the criminal justice system.

Proposals set out in the Evidence and Procedure Review and the Justice Digital Strategy are welcome and, in some cases, long overdue. Aspects of current criminal law procedure could rightly be described as archaic. The Committee notes the potential for considerable savings to be made if far fewer witnesses are required to attend court and are able to give their evidence in other ways.

However, the Committee notes with concern that the timetable for implementation of some aspects of the Digital Strategy has slipped, with some targets already missed. The Committee further notes that there appears to be no public timetable for implementing the Evidence and Procedure Review.

The Committee asks for a progress report from the Scottish Government in respect of each main element of the Review and the Strategy, setting out the timescale, the anticipated effect on the prosecution process, and where possible, the projected cost saving in relation to each such element.

The Committee also asks for an update from the Scottish Government as to what legislative changes it envisages may be required to unlock the full potential of the Evidence and Procedure Review and the Justice Digital Strategy, and what plans it has in respect of these.

The Committee seeks further information from the Scottish Government as to how proposals to encourage increased judicial case management in the context of criminal proceedings will be progressed and what additional support, if any (eg training), it envisages the judiciary may require in this modified role.

The Committee also seeks further information from the Scottish Government as to whether additional funding will be required to fully implement the Digital Strategy and the Evidence and Procedure Review and, if so, whether these have been costed and what proportion of these costs fall on the COPFS.

Given acknowledged difficulties with the delivery of major IT projects in the public sector, the Committee is concerned that there should not be an over-reliance on information technology to drive reform in the criminal justice system.

Effectiveness of the prosecution service

The Committee agrees with the Lord Advocate that the COPFS is, overall, “effective, rigorous, fair and independent” in the prosecution of crime. The evidence received indicates that, in general, Scotland is fundamentally well served by the COPFS in its core role as public prosecutor. However, the same evidence also makes clear that there should be no room for complacency and that the various shortcomings stakeholders have identified must be addressed.

The Committee acknowledges that the criminal justice system has not always prioritised domestic abuse as it should have or treated it with the seriousness it deserves. It was necessary for a clear message to be sent by public agencies working in the system that domestic abuse is unacceptable and would be tackled robustly, in order to give victims confidence that their case would be taken seriously. The COPFS/Police Scotland Joint Protocol on domestic violence has played an important role in that process. The Committee notes the differing views it has received during this inquiry as to the COPFS’s application of the protocol, notes the Lord Advocate’s response to it, and asks the COPFS and the Scottish Government to reflect further on the views that the Committee heard.

The Committee calls on the COPFS and Scottish Government to note evidence as to the quality and consistency of prosecution of those summary cases in relation to which special considerations do not apply by way of Lord Advocate’s guidelines to prosecutors or in the Joint Protocol on domestic abuse. Such cases include instances of antisocial behaviour, crimes of dishonesty or less serious violent crimes. The evidence suggests that these are sometimes under-prioritised.

The Committee acknowledges the COPFS’s evidence that it intends to build stronger relationships with third sector stakeholders in the prosecution of wildlife or environmental crime. The Committee asks the COPFS to respond to views heard in evidence that recommendations in the Scottish Government’s 2008 report Natural Justice, particularly in relation to post-prosecution debriefings, have not been fully implemented, and to set out its plans to address this.

The Committee is concerned by evidence of very low prosecution rates for failure to hold employer’s liability insurance, noting that the consequences of failing to be properly insured can be devastating for individuals and families. The Committee welcomes the COPFS’s commitment to explore the reasons behind the low number of referrals with relevant reporting agencies and requests an update from the COPFS.

The Committee seeks the COPFS’s view on whether there is merit in recruiting locum prosecutors to prosecute High Court cases turning on complex and specialist aspects of criminal law such as corporate fraud or health and safety breaches and, if so, whether this is part of its current practice.

The Committee is concerned by evidence that the courts are sometimes being asked to take decisions on bail without access to the full range of relevant information. This may lead to decisions being made that are not necessarily in the public interest, for instance to refuse bail on the basis of the accused’s homelessness. Whilst the safety of the public and the integrity of the prosecution process must be the paramount considerations, the public interest is not served by individuals being remanded when more suitable alternatives may be available. The Committee asks the COPFS and Scottish Government, on behalf of the Scottish Prison Service, to respond to this evidence.

The Committee notes the COPFS’s view that a drive towards increased centralisation and specialisation is likely to have helped it become a more efficient and professional organisation. The setting up of specialist prosecution units (for instance in relation to sexual offences) has been broadly welcomed. However, evidence has made clear that some trade-offs have been involved. It has been concerning to note evidence that local fiscals may sometimes find themselves running cases against their own professional judgment. The Committee also notes views that increased centralisation may have had an effect on morale and job satisfaction in local offices.

The Committee seeks clarification from the COPFS that consideration of the autonomy and decision-making capacity of local fiscals is being taken forward in its current “Fair Futures” programme being developed in consultation with its staff.

The Committee notes views that the centralisation of case marking has led to an erosion of knowledge as to the availability of local schemes and programmes where case markers are considering alternatives to prosecution. The Committee asks the Scottish Government to consider whether, if these perceptions are valid, Community Justice Scotland could be invited to address them in its ongoing work to develop a new model for community justice delivery.

More generally, the Committee asks the COPFS and Scottish Government as to what monitoring there is of the effectiveness of diversion from prosecution and whether and how the results of that monitoring are fed back to the COPFS for continuous improvement purposes.

Victims and witnesses and the COPFS

The Committee supports the principle that the COPFS prosecutes in the public interest and not directly in the interests of individual victims of crime: it is not “the victim’s lawyer”. The Committee understands that this may sometimes lead to difficult decisions being made that victims find painful. However, the Committee considers that the principle is key to protecting the independence and integrity of the prosecution service.

The Committee considers that there is no inherent contradiction between putting the public interest first during the prosecution process and putting victim care at the heart of criminal justice system, In particular, victims have a right to be listened to and to be treated with respect and sensitivity. Their views matter and they should be consulted, whenever possible, at appropriate points in the prosecution process.

The Committee considers that an effective, efficient and fair COPFS in everyone’s interests; accused, victims and witnesses alike. The Committee is therefore concerned by evidence that a lack of preparation time means that time limits in solemn trials are being “routinely” exceeded and seeks the COPFS’s response.

The Committee also asks the COPFS to respond to evidence that its general policy is not to seek the withdrawal of warrants for arrest of an accused for non-attendance, even where there may be exculpatory or mitigating factors. The Committee accepts that non-appearance for a court hearing is a serious matter but asks the COPFS to respond to concerns that, if this is its policy, it may impact disproportionately on vulnerable people.

The Committee asks the COPFS and Scottish Government to clarify what information (if any) public agencies must provide to families and dependents of accused people and what measures are in place to ensure that the information is provided. The Committee seeks clarification from the COPFS and Scottish Government as to what measures are in place to ensure that family members or vulnerable adults accused or convicted of a crime are contacted and notified.

The Committee considers that the safety and mental welfare of victims, balanced against the accused’s right to a fair trial, should be at the forefront of consideration during the prosecution process. The Committee asks the COPFS and Scottish Government to confirm whether it is their understanding that Victims and Witnesses (Scotland) Act 2014 imposes legal duties on the COPFS, and other agencies, in relation to the hostile cross-examination of witnesses during a criminal trial and, if so, to clarify what practices and policies are in place to ensure that relevant legal requirements are met.

The Committee welcomes the Victims’ Code for Scotland and considers that the pamphlet should be available to all victims at their first point of contact with the criminal justice system. The Committee seeks clarification from the COPFS and Scottish Government as to current practices in relation to making the Code available.

The Committee welcomes ongoing work under the Evidence and Procedure Review to reform the way in which children give evidence during a trial but repeats its earlier concern that there is no publication date for the review’s findings.

The Committee notes that the aspiration is to make taking evidence from children in a courtroom setting the exception rather than the norm. Any reforms must continue to allow the defence to challenge and test the evidence. The Committee looks forwards to considering detailed proposals as they emerge.

The Committee welcomes the additional funding that the Cabinet Secretary provided for the victim fund, which assists families of murder victims, in the 2016-17 financial year. The Committee asks the Scottish Government to keep the fund under review to ensure that it is adequate.

The Committee considers that the evidence taken from victims of crime set out serious failings by the criminal justice system, of which the COPFS is a key component, to provide the confidence necessary for these victims to participate in court proceedings. These failings including a lack of communications, misinformation, delays and adjournments, have resulted in some of these victims concluding that they would never have reported the crime in the first place. The Committee considers that this is unacceptable and must be addressed as a priority, and repeats its view that it is imperative that the COPFS finds more effective methods for passing on accurate up-to-date information about trials in real time to all stakeholders, victims especially. The Committee acknowledges that the reasons for adjournments in criminal trials are complex and that the COPFS bears only partial responsibility for them.

The Committee asks the COPFS to clarify the extent to which it takes into account the vulnerability of victims and witnesses, and the risk to them of a prolonged or delayed prosecution process, in determining the prioritisation of cases, in the light of evidence that delays in hearing cases can disproportionately damage the mental welfare of vulnerable adults.

The Committee recognises the valuable role played by the Victim Information and Advice Service, and that there has been praise for the contribution of VIA staff members in evidence. The Committee recognises that the COPFS’s resources are finite and limited and prevent it providing as much assistance as it would like. At the same time, there are lessons for the COPFS as a whole to learn as to the way it sometimes communicates with victims of crime and with other prosecution witnesses.

Reforms under the Victims and Witnesses (Scotland) Act 2014 have significantly widened the duties owed to victims and witnesses and have been widely welcomed. The COPFS, in common with other public agencies, is still adjusting to these changes. The Committee is concerned by evidence appearing to indicate that some of the key rights secured by that legislation are not yet a reality for victims and witnesses in their journey through the criminal justice system. The Committee asks the COPFS and Scottish Government to respond to this evidence, and to evidence that victims and witnesses are not always aware of their rights.

The Committee welcomes the Lord Advocate’s acknowledgement that the COPFS might benefit from examining the process of giving evidence from the victim’s perspective in order to see whether it could be improved.

The Committee is concerned by evidence that vulnerable witnesses did not always obtain the special measures that they had requested and that where some special measures (for instance, screens) were provided, they were not always adequate. Evidence that victims and witnesses did not always feel secure outwith the courtroom setting during the trial process is also concerning. The Committee notes that, as well as potentially affecting victims’ and witnesses’ mental welfare, this might affect the evidence they give, or in extreme cases lead them not to give evidence at all.

The Committee recommends that the COPFS carry out an audit of victims and witnesses entitled to special measures in order to determine (a) whether they are aware of their rights to ask for special measures, (b) whether reasonable requests for non-standard special measures are being met, and (c) the extent to which the provision of special measures actually assisted the individual in providing evidence and, if not, what lessons could be learned from this.

Under the Victims and Witnesses (Scotland) Act 2014, the COPFS is required to take reasonable steps to enable victims and their families to avoid the accused during a trial. The Committee seeks clarification from the COPFS as to how it exercises that duty in practice and whether it makes victims and their families aware of its existence.

The Committee was concerned by evidence as to the lack of contact between victims and prosecutors during trial preparation, leading in some cases to a perception from victims that the Crown was not well prepared when it came to the trial. The Committee notes the explanation provided by the COPFS as to why, in the vast majority of cases, it is no longer considered appropriate to precognose victims and witnesses. However, the Committee also notes evidence that precognition by the Crown, amongst other things, may help evidence be agreed earlier, and thus help cases resolve more quickly, which is one of the main aims of the Evidence and Procedure Review. The Committee asks the COPFS to respond to this evidence.

Evidence received over the course of this inquiry shows a divergence between the intentions of the COPFS and the experience of many victims. Victims can be re-traumatised by what can come across as a mechanistic process that does not always appear to have their interests at heart. Victims and witnesses are sometimes made to feel like an afterthought. This is a system-wide problem but the COPFS, as the key organisation within the prosecution process, bears its share of responsibility. Any comprehensive solution must also be system-wide.

The Committee notes Dr Lesley Thomson’s Review of Victim Care in the Justice Sector in Scotland. Whilst welcoming the Review as a valuable contribution to the current debate as to how best to cater for victims within the prosecution process, the Committee considers that many of its conclusions have been voiced before but not acted upon.

The Committee requests a detailed response from the COPFS and the Scottish Government as to the main conclusions in the Review, including which recommendations they propose to accept, and what legislative reforms may be necessary in the light of this. The Committee further requests from the COPFS and Scottish Government a timetable for implementing recommendations in the Review. The Committee also seeks their views on the Review’s proposal that victims should have access to a single point of contact providing advice and support during their journey through the criminal justice process.

The Committee notes that the number of referrals to the VIA service has risen sharply (by around 45% in seven years) and that the Thomson Review estimates an additional 4000 referrals per annum in future thanks to recent legislative reforms. The Committee considers that without additional resource for VIA, there will almost certainly be adverse consequences for its ability to work effectively.

The Committee calls for the COPFS to audit the work VIA currently undertakes in order to come to a view on where the main demands on its services come from and whether there are areas of unmet need.

The Committee makes these recommendations in the context of what it recognises as an ongoing debate as to the future role of the VIA service. The Committee considers that obtaining more information on VIA’s current workload and on unmet need may help clarify next steps in relation to that debate.

The Inspectorate of Prosecutions

The Inspectorate of Prosecutions in Scotland has an important role to play in ensuring the effectiveness and efficiency of the prosecution system and the Committee supports its work. The inquiry has laid bare the Inspectorate’s very low public profile, even amongst criminal justice stakeholders. Whilst the Inspectorate is not a public-facing complaints-handling organisation or an advocacy body, it requires the input of informed experts and stakeholders to add value to its scrutiny work.

The Committee is therefore concerned at the lack of stakeholder awareness of the Inspectorate’s output, given that its reports have touched on matters of genuine public interest.

The Committee notes the Inspectorate’s assurances that it recognises its low profile as a concern and proposes to address it. The Committee requests an update from the Inspectorate as to what work is planned and would welcome the Scottish Government’s view on what the Inspectorate proposes.

The Committee notes that it helps the Inspectorate to have ex-COPFS staff working on its investigations. They bring with them a wealth of knowledge about how the service works that is likely to add to the quality of its output. However, the Committee considers that the Inspectorate has not currently got the balance quite right. This applies particularly to the practice of recruiting most assistant inspectors from the COPFS on secondment.

The Committee notes the Inspector’s assurances that she has never been influenced to change a recommendation in her reports. However, perceptions matter, and current arrangements contribute to a perception that the Inspectorate may not be as independent from the COPFS as it was intended to be. The Committee requests the Scottish Government to reflect on these views and to respond to them.

Finally, the Committee asks the Inspector to take into account conclusions and recommendations about the COPFS made elsewhere in this report when considering her next programme of inspections.

LET’S DO JUSTICE DIFFERENTLY – JAMES WOLFFE QC

At a meeting on 17 January 2017, MSPs on the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee took evidence from Lord Advocate James Wolffe QC – who told MSPs ongoing reviews suggested a “need to do criminal justice in really quite a different way”.

In the months since James Wolffe made this statement to MSPs, Wolffe has embarked on a public relations offensive in order to bring the thorny question of the removal of corroboration – a safeguard against miscarriage of justice – from Scotland’s criminal justice system – in order to secure what COPFS agents believe would be a vastly higher conviction rate – if the requirement of two independent sources of verification for evidence was dropped.

Appearing in sympathetic press, Wolffe has made known he now sides with the abolishment of corroboration and a wholesale change of the way criminal prosecutions are handled in Scotland.

However, critics say the Crown Office cannot be trusted with such radical alterations to Scots Criminal law – pointing to high levels of corruption at the Crown Office including staff who themselves hold criminal records for serious offences, and the widely known fact COPFS is heavily compromised by criminal informants, as well as legal staff who have tipped off other crooks including lawyers & financiers linked to major criminal investigations.

And – moves to drop corroboration in the past have been condemned as little more than a policy move to allow Prosecutors to make up evidence as they go along in Criminal Trials.

Legal figures from across Scotland have indicated it is their view that if  corroboration were removed from the Criminal justice system, trials would be likely to see an increase in all kinds of dodgy statements & evidence used by desperate prosecutors out for a conviction at any cost.

Evidence from Police Officers too has been widely criticised by several members of the judiciary who contend officers have knowingly given false, and at times corrupt evidence in  Scotland’s Sheriff and High Courts of Justiciary.

Legal insiders have since tipped off the media the Crown Office has conducted an internal consultation on how to ‘reinvigorate’ moves to abolish corroboration and return the issue to the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee – where MSPS previously concluded only two years ago that corroboration must remain as part of Scotland’s justice system.

The Justice Committee’s decision came from an impassioned address by Lord Brian Gill, who rightly supported the retention of corroboration as a safeguard to ensure the right to a fair trial across the spectrum of Scotland’s criminal justice system.

The Justice Committee – then under the chair of MSP Christine Grahame MSP, had previously heard from anti-corroboration protagonists Lord Carloway – who is now Scotland’s top judge, and the then Lord Advocate Frank Mulholland – who Carloway has since appointed to a £180k judicial post at the Court of Session.

The Justice Committee remained unconvinced of the merits of abolishing corroboration after hearing from Carloway, Mulholland and a plethora of other groups & vested interests.

Lord Advocate James Wolffe is also facing serious questions to answer over his role in a growing scandal around cash bungs and payments to members of the Faculty of Advocates – while Wolffe was Dean of Faculty.

An ongoing media investigation into a case in which a judge & privy councillor failed to declare links to his son – who was at the time representing a construction company which admitted an incident of unlawfully dumping contaminated waste – has established a QC representing the pursuer was paid large sums of cash after he demanded the payments “in any form except beads”.

An investigation into the payments – which breach Faculty rules -, and evidence of alleged malpractice by the QC was covered up while Wolffe was Dean of Faculty.

Now, the case has re-entered the headlines as calls grow for a full investigation into legal regulators including Wolffe’s Faculty of Advocates – who dismissed the complaint without even looking at it.

Video footage of two appearances by Crown Office agents including the Lord Advocate – James Wolffe QC, follow:

Scottish Parliament Justice Committee 17 January 2017 – COPFS Inquiry & other business

Committee convener Margaret Mitchell said the probe had “unearthed some serious concerns”.

She said: “From the amount of time wasted through trials not proceeding on schedule, to the workload of prosecutors and the support offered to the victims and witnesses who appear at court. “The justice committee will publish its conclusions in due course, but we hope that the Lord Advocate will have listened to the legitimate concerns raised so far.”

Conservative justice spokesman Douglas Ross pressed the Lord Advocate on whether there would be “an overhaul of the justice system” in light of concerns raised.

Mr Wolffe said he acknowledged the challenges COPFS faces, saying “significant reform” was ongoing, with a process review suggesting “the need to do criminal justice in really quite a different way”.

Crown Agent David Harvie, the professional head of the service, said there was a “very strong argument for system change” within the justice system, and “a need and an opportunity for transformational change”.

Staff surveys have noted that 40% of Crown Office staff don’t wish to stay in the service in the long term – although Mr Wolffe argued that this is “considerably higher” than the average in the civil service, saying things were moving in the right direction. He also argued that there should be no lack of confidence in the fundamental work of COPFS, with a conviction rate of 80% in cases prosecuted.

Mr Harvie said the “vast majority” of individuals were provided with a good service, although he said he “accepts and regrets” that some had been failed.

In response to further questions about staff issues, Mr Wolffe said “we are not complacent about it”, but added that “there is encouragement to be taken” from staff surveys. He said the service had “come a remarkable distance” in his lifetime, from a position where the criminal justice system paid no regard to the needs of witnesses.

The Lord Advocate highlighted communication and support for victims and vulnerable witnesses as a particular area of focus for ongoing improvements, with ambition to deal with evidence from children and vulnerable people in a different way.

Ms Mitchell said there was a “fundamental problem” over communications with victims of sexual assault in particular, with Mr Harvie agreeing this was an issue worthy of “significant reflection” and further work.

Under the current budget draft, the Crown Office budget is maintained in cash terms, which equates to a real-terms cut.

Mr Harvie told members that £1.5m of savings had been targeted, with half of the sum coming from staff costs.

He said “probably around 30” jobs would be cut, by not replacing staff who leave or retire. The other half of the savings will come from areas like expert witness costs and pathology, although Mr Harvie conceded there was a “risk” that some could also come from staffing – albeit “not a significant risk”.

Mr Wolffe previously appeared at Holyrood to give evidence about the draft budget, at which point he argued the Crown Office had adequate resources to fulfil its role.

Scottish Parliament Justice Committee 20 December 2016 COPFS Inquiry & other business

Concluding MSPs probe of the Crown Office, 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. These findings must be taken into account by COPFS management and the Scottish government.”

Lord Advocate James Wolffe QC said: “It is gratifying that the committee has concluded that COPFS is an effective, rigorous, fair and independent public prosecutor.It states that, in general, the public in Scotland is fundamentally well-served by the COPFS in that core role. That is, in large part, a tribute to the professionalism and commitment of the staff of the service. The committee has made a number of recommendations and I will wish to take time to reflect on all of those recommendations.”

For a more substantive reporting on the Crown Office, read previously articles here: Scotland’s Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal Service – previous reports and on the office of Lord Advocate here: Scotland’s Lord Advocate – Top crime officer leaves much doubt on justice.

Have a problem with the Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal Service? Tips to tell on cases, prosecutions or presentation of dodgy evidence? Tell us more about it in confidence, by email to scottishlawreporters@gmail.com

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