The Scottish prosecution service is being urged to be more transparent about its handling of criminal allegations against the police.
The Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) is also being asked to review its approach to involving and communicating with those who make criminal complaints against the police, and to address a lack of written policy and guidance.
The recommendations follow an inspection by HM Inspectorate of Prosecution in Scotland into the management by COPFS of criminal allegations against the police.
“Overall, we found the quality of decision making by COPFS is good and the public should be reassured by the robust scrutiny which is applied to on duty criminal allegations against police officers and staff,” said Laura Paton, HM Chief Inspector of Prosecution.
“There is scope for improvement, however. There is work to be done to ensure that decisions on whether criminal allegations should result in a prosecution are made timeously, and are communicated effectively to complainers and those complained about.”
The aim of the inspection was to assess the management of criminal allegations against the police by COPFS with a view to providing assurance to the Lord Advocate, the public and other stakeholders that such cases are dealt with effectively and efficiently.
“Given the privileged place police occupy in our society and the powers they exercise on behalf of the state, it is essential that allegations of criminal conduct by them are investigated thoroughly and independently, and in a manner which maintains public confidence,” said Ms Paton.
The inspection is the first of its kind since COPFS established a national unit – the Criminal Allegations Against the Police Division (CAAP-D) – for the handling of on duty criminal allegations against the police. The national unit has resulted in consistency in decision making and helped COPFS build better relationships with stakeholders.
The most common criticism of COPFS by stakeholders was the length of time it takes for decisions to be made on whether a complaint will result in a prosecution. However, a lack of robust and accurate management information makes it difficult to assess the timeliness of decision making. Despite COPFS appearing to meet its 12-week target for decision making, the inspectorate found this was based on flawed data. Ms Paton said: “The lack of accurate data has limited the ability of senior managers to pinpoint areas of good practice and areas where improvement is required. I welcome recent changes in the Crown’s approach to managing targets.”
Staff within CAAP-D enjoy a good level of job satisfaction, supported by senior leaders who understand criminal complaints against police require to be treated differently from other cases. They benefit from joint training with stakeholders but would value more formalised training and guidance.
While COPFS has bespoke processes for managing on duty criminal complaints, allegations against the police while they are off duty are treated similar to allegations against members of the public. However, the inspectorate found that a quarter of the off duty cases it reviewed should have been treated as on duty criminal complaints. Ms Paton noted: “There is a lack of clarity around the definition of off and on duty criminal conduct and it is important cases are categorised appropriately.”
The lack of written guidance about how COPFS manages criminal complaints creates unnecessary risk and HM Inspectorate of Prosecution encourages the development of guidance for COPFS staff and for the police.
There is also a lack of publicly available data about the Crown’s handling of criminal allegations against the police and about the protected characteristics of the complainers. The report contains 18 recommendations covering improved liaison with complainers, prompt notification of complaints to COPFS by the police followed by prompt processing, disclosure in related cases, and the introduction of electronic recording systems. COPFS will be asked to create an action plan to address the issues raised by the inspection and HM Inspectorate of Prosecution in Scotland will monitor progress.
Notes to editors
The Lord Advocate is the head of the systems of prosecution and investigation of deaths in Scotland, functions which she exercises independently of any other person. COPFS is the sole prosecuting authority in Scotland. It receives reports about crimes from the police and other agencies and then decides what action to take, including whether to prosecute. All criminal allegations against the police are reported to COPFS. Where it is alleged a crime was committed by a police officer while on duty, a report is made to and investigated by CAAP-D.
In cases where the accused is not an on duty police officer, a report is normally only made to COPFS where the police or other agency assesses there is sufficient evidence to establish a crime has been committed and the accused is responsible. However, where the accused is an on duty officer, police conduct regulations require that all allegations where criminality can be reasonably inferred are referred to COPFS for independent investigation, regardless of whether there is a sufficiency of evidence. CAAP-D will then decide if the investigation should be carried out by the police service’s Professional Standards Department (PSD) or by the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner (PIRC). Either way, the investigation remains under the direction and control of COPFS.
The majority of criminal allegations against the police relate to Police Scotland, due to its size, but CAAP-D also manages criminal complaints from other police services operating in Scotland such as British Transport Police, Ministry of Defence Police and Civil Nuclear Constabulary.
This inspection report, which focuses on the role of COPFS, complements the broader review of police complaints handling carried out by Dame Elish Angiolini and published in November 2020.
Our report on the management by COPFS of criminal allegations against the police is available from our Publications page.
For further information, please contact us.