The aim of this inspection was to review and assess the effectiveness of the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) management of statutory time limits in serious cases. Time limits in criminal proceedings provide a vital safeguard for accused persons. It is a right that the courts have rigorously upheld.
Scotland has one of the tightest time limit regimes among comparable jurisdictions and responsibility for complying with time limits rests with COPFS. Failure to adhere to statutory time limits has serious consequences:
- If the accused has been remanded in custody and the relevant time limit expires, the accused will be released on bail. Remand in custody is a means of managing the risk that an accused person presents, to individuals, to the community and/or to the administration of justice. Releasing such a person on bail, therefore, potentially places people in danger or creates a risk that s/he may try to interfere with or evade justice.
- For accused persons released on bail, failure to comply with relevant time limits brings proceedings to an end and the accused person will be free for all time from those charges.
As well as the consequences described for victims, witnesses and the community, any failure resulting in a case becoming time-barred is likely to undermine public confidence in the COPFS and, potentially, in the criminal justice system as a whole.
The focus of this inspection is the management of time limits that apply to serious cases prosecuted under solemn procedure ("solemn cases"), that is cases prosecuted in the High Court or in the Sheriff Court before a jury. Time limits apply to all solemn cases prosecuted in Scotland.
Approximately 5,300 serious cases are prosecuted each year. It is noteworthy and to the credit of COPFS that, with a few exceptions, they are managed within the tight time limits that apply in Scots law.
Recently, however, there has been an increase of serious cases and a marked change in the profile of such cases, with a significant increase of sexual crimes. Solemn cases have also become more complex as new sophisticated investigation techniques have evolved to combat crime. These developments have impacted on the prosecution service and staff resources.
With increasing pressure on COPFS resources, it is imperative that the systems employed to ensure compliance with time limits are effective, comprehensive and robust. This review makes a number of recommendations that are designed to achieve that overarching purpose.