During my time as Chief Inspector, Crown Office and the Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) has, in common with other public service organisations, operated within an environment of budgetary constraint. In this context, the evolving complexity of crime, often transcending territorial boundaries; the changing profile of serious offending including a substantial increase in reporting of sexual crimes; the need to modernise the delivery of criminal justice by harnessing digital technology; and the provision of a quality service that expedites cases where necessary and responds to victims, witnesses, nearest relatives and, where appropriate, accused and young offenders, taking account of individual needs and vulnerabilities, has posed significant challenges for COPFS.
In recent reports we have identified areas where COPFS has fallen short of the levels of service expected by those who come into contact with the prosecution service, often at a time of personal crisis or distress.
In our thematic report on Fatal Accident Inquiries (FAIs), we reported that delays between the date of death and the start of an FAI adversely impacts on:
- The momentum of investigations and the operational capacity of investigating agencies;
- The well-being of potential witnesses for whom the prospect of the inquiry “hanging over them” is a source of anxiety and concern;
- The confidence of the nearest relatives and the public; and
- The quality of the evidence and, in some cases, the purpose of the FAI.
Of particular concern was the finding that mandatory FAIs took on average 14 months from the date of death to the start of the FAI. To impose more focus and rigour when dealing with such cases, we recommended that COPFS should introduce an internal target for progressing mandatory FAIs.
In our thematic report on the Investigation and Prosecution of Sexual Crimes published last year we identified a gap between the service provided to victims and witnesses and what they want, need and expect. We made recommendations designed to provide victims with information and support in a more nuanced way tailored to their individual needs.
Similar themes arose in our most recent thematic review of the Prosecution of Young People where we made recommendations to improve the timeliness of implementing decisions and the content of communication with young people who are diverted from prosecution.
Managing mandatory FAIs within specific timescales and increased engagement with victims and witnesses and offenders inevitably involves more time and resources for COPFS but is essential for a prosecution service that aspires to provide a high quality service.
Following an exercise undertaken by COPFS to scope the implications of the shift in the profile of cases being reported and to ascertain the number of additional staff that would be required to deliver the level of service that the public expects, COPFS secured a significant increase in their in-year budget. On receipt of the additional funding, an extensive recruitment drive has commenced aimed at securing up to 140 new permanent members of staff, resulting in the highest ever level of staffing in COPFS.
The additional funding is extremely welcome and provides a significant opportunity to tackle some of the issues highlighted in our recent reports. The Lord Advocate has advised that indicting all sexual crimes in the High Court within shorter timescales, providing victims, witnesses and nearest relatives with an improved level of service, including providing regular updates and shortening the time taken to conclude death investigations are among the priorities for the allocation of the additional resource.
Taking account of the time required to train new staff which will allow more experienced staff to be re-deployed to specialist areas of work such as investigating sexual crimes and deaths, I have deferred the follow-up report on FAIs to allow the additional resource to become established and make an impact.
Additional funding for the development of digital facilities including the Witness Website, discussed further at Chapter Two, has also been acquired. Digital innovations, including the ability of witnesses to access information on the progress of cases, offer the means to improve the effectiveness of COPFS’ service delivery. In this context, I would re-iterate the potential savings of serving indictments electronically as recommended in our report on the Management of Time-Limits. This has the potential to replace the existing out-of-date system and enable indictments to be served more quickly and securely.
We look forward to monitoring the impact of the additional staff and digital innovations in our follow-up reports on FAIs and the Investigation and Prosecution of Sexual Crimes during the next reporting year.
I would like to thank all who shared their experience and knowledge to help inform our reports this year and the IPS staff for their support and assistance.
HM Chief Inspector