Communication and Contact
Communication of Initial Decision
76. By their very nature, solemn cases, concerning more serious crimes, tend to involve more direct engagement with victims. Communication of decisions not to prosecute or to discontinue proceedings will, in many cases, be conducted in accordance with any victim strategy and will normally involve providing an explanation and reasons for the decision.
77. Whereas, in summary cases, victims are normally notified of decisions not to prosecute or to discontinue proceedings by letter. We reviewed the 12 letters sent to victims, falling within the VIA remit, to assess whether the information given would provide the victim with an understanding of the reasons for the decision.
78. In the majority, we found little or no explanation was given to the victim.
79. For example, in two cases, the letter simply stated that "no action will be taken in this case". As one case involved a victim with learning difficulties, this was particularly disappointing.
80. In another four cases, the letter advised that there was insufficient evidence and explained that in Scotland there requires to be more than one source of evidence to prove a crime was committed and the identity of the person who committed it without any further explanation of why in the particular case it was considered there was insufficient evidence. In one of the four cases, relating to a decision to discontinue proceedings, the victim was advised there was no longer sufficient evidence, again without any explanation of the change in circumstances that had resulted in the proceedings coming to an end.
81. Given the lack of information provided, it is unsurprising that the victims chose to submit a VRR.
82. While the letters do advise victims of their right to get more information, good customer service dictates that victims should be provided with substantive and understandable reasons at the outset. In order for VIA to provide more detailed reasons, prosecutors require to record clear and accountable explanations for their decisions.
83. In all six cases, RIU provided a full explanation for the decision taken at the review.
84. In one case, involving a contravention of the Road Traffic Act, the victim was advised that there was insufficient evidence to prove that the accused was the driver of the vehicle and narrated all lines of enquiry that had been explored. While it does not achieve the outcome desired by the victim, understanding the reason for the decision is more likely to gain a measure of acceptance.
85. The more open and transparent the decision-making process, the more trust and confidence it is likely to instill in victims and consequentially reduce the need to submit a VRR.
COPFS should provide substantive and understandable reasons for initial decisions not to prosecute or to discontinue proceedings to victims who are notified of such decisions.
Quality of Communication of RIU
86. We assessed the quality and timeliness of RIU communication with victims.
87. In assessing the standard of communication we took into account: the method of communication; whether all the issues raised by the victim were addressed; whether the response provided a clear explanation of the decision and provided reasons using language that would be readily understandable; and the timeliness of the response.
88. Although the assessment focused on the response issued by RIU, the manner of the communication of the decision not to prosecute or to discontinue proceedings was also considered, as it provided the context for RIU's dealings with the victim. From the victim's perspective, a co-ordinated, consistent approach to the manner of communication, rather than dealing with each piece of correspondence in isolation, is likely to provide an enhanced level of service.
89. Of the 57 applications, we assessed the standard of response as excellent in 7% (4) and satisfactory in 63% (36). However, for 30% (17) communication was assessed as below standard.
There was a commitment in RIU to conduct full and thorough reviews and responses were generally empathetic. In the majority of the 57 applications, efforts had been made to respond to all issues raised and where there was fault or poor service, it was generally acknowledged, often with an apology.
Cases Assessed as Excellent
90. Of the four cases assessed as excellent, there were some common features:
91. On completing the review, RIU communicated the outcome to each victim in a manner consistent with previous contact and tailored to their individual needs.
- In two the decision was communicated by personnel who had previous contact with the victim and with whom they had developed a rapport.
- In the other two, empathetic letters, clearly setting out the reasons for the decision and addressing all points raised in the application, were issued. A meeting, to discuss any remaining concerns, was also offered.
92. In two of the four cases the application was completed by the case preparer on behalf of the victim, one with the assistance of an appropriate adult,  taking account of their equality issues and individual needs.
Cases Assessed as Satisfactory
93. We assessed communication of the response as satisfactory in 36 cases.
94. Efforts were made to explain the reasons for the decision in understandable language, to offer reassurance and to address all the concerns raised in the application.
95. In some, we identified pockets of excellence. For example, in one case involving a victim with learning difficulties, in addition to contacting the victim to explain the decision, RIU arranged for a social worker to attend to read and explain the response. In another, a large volume of documentation to support the application was given careful consideration to assess whether there was any additional evidence.
96. However, deficiencies with earlier communication, including not providing updates or delays in dealing with the application by the PF office, detracted from the responses being assessed as excellent.
97. Conversely, in a case involving a death, where personnel in the PF office met with bereaved relatives to explain a decision to discontinue proceedings and RIU subsequently made personal contact to advise them of the outcome of the review, repeated contact by a relative attempting to receive an update on what was happening during the review process, no doubt causing additional distress, impacted on the overall standard of communication.
Cases Assessed as Below Standard
98. There were, however, 17 cases where we assessed that the standard of communication fell below what was expected.
99. Of the 17 cases, we identified the following themes:
- Method of communication inappropriate – in five, no account was taken of equality issues when communicating the outcome of the review, despite the needs/vulnerabilities of the victims being well documented. There were other issues, including delay, with one taking six months to complete and where, following review, Victim Support Scotland  advised that the victim required further reassurance and more information.
- Content of response – in six, the response did not address all of the issues raised in the application or contained inaccurate information or used legal jargon that would not be readily understandable. Of note, in four, there had already been issues with communication prior to the application being received which should have prompted a higher quality of service. In two, there were delays in issuing the response, with the longest period being five months.
- Victims not kept updated – in four, where the decision not to prosecute was overturned, the victims were not updated during the review. In two, there were long periods with no communication coupled with delay in conducting the review. In another, the only record of communication was the victim being advised that the case had been passed to the local PF office to reconsider whether to re-raise proceedings and no further monitoring/updates took place. In the remaining case the victim complained about the lack of information and that proceedings had been raised without receiving a final response.
- Other – in one, where a complaint had already been upheld in relation to failures to respond to requests for information prior to the VRR being received, the request from the victim for clarification of the final response was ignored. In another, where there had been complaints regarding failures to respond to requests for information, there was a delay in the case being allocated resulting in a delay in acknowledging the VRR and completing the review.
100. Providing the outcome of the review in writing is appropriate for most cases, but for more vulnerable victims, including some bereaved relatives, victims of sexual crimes and those with equality issues, communication needs to be tailored to the individual and consistent with the manner of the previous contact and the victim strategy. The VRR guidance emphasises the need for such communication when notifying no action or no further action decisions but is silent on how the outcome of the review should be communicated. It does, however, provide that in some categories of cases where the decision is overturned, consideration should be given to meeting with the victim before commencing or re‑commencing proceedings.
101. 20 of the 57 applications involved sexual crimes or cases involving a death.
102. We found:
- In 15, the communication was made in a manner consistent with the previous contact and tailored to individual needs.
- In five cases, the issuing of a letter that failed to take account of the individual needs of the victims, including equality considerations, was inappropriate. In three cases, RIU had recognised the need to tailor communication to the victims' needs but failed to apply this when issuing the response.
- To provide consistency, for cases where there is an existing victim strategy or where the Family Liaison Charter  applies, the outcome of the review should be communicated with the victim or bereaved family in a manner consistent with previous communication.
COPFS policy should reflect that the VRR response should be communicated in a manner consistent with previous communication, in terms of the victim strategy or, in death cases, with the Family Liaison Charter and in accordance with any equality considerations.
103. We identified areas for improving internal communications in 13 cases. The issues included:
- Delays in local PF offices identifying and referring VRR applications to RIU or providing information required by RIU to deal with the review.
- Difficulties locating productions necessary to conduct the review caused delay in one case.
- A lack of contingency arrangements during periods of staff absences.
- A lack of monitoring of reviews referred to local PF offices to re-consider where new information had been received.
104. Such issues impacted on the ability of RIU to meet internal timescales and/or on the time taken for proceedings to be raised.
105. Greater awareness in the PF offices of the importance of transferring VRRs to RIU immediately on receipt will mitigate some of these delays.
Timeliness of the VRR Process
106. COPFS aim to inform victims of the review decision within 20 working days of receiving their application for a review, although it is recognised that for some more complex cases further investigation may be required which may take longer.
107. It is important that reviews are not only conducted thoroughly but timeously to alleviate anxiety for victims and to prevent cases becoming time barred.
108. We examined the time taken for the review in each of the 57 applications. We found:
70% (40) of the responses were issued more than 20 working days after receipt of the application.
109. In 20 the response took more than three months, the longest period being 10 months. Of those a relatively high proportion (35%) resulted in the original decision being overturned. The time taken in these cases is perhaps indicative of the thoroughness of the consideration of the VRR.
110. We examined the 20 cases taking more than three months to identify any common themes.
Analysis of reviews exceeding three months
111. Of the 20 cases:
- In 10, the time taken to obtain the additional information requested by RIU was a significant factor. In two, this was attributable to delays in requesting the additional information.
- In seven, the time taken to allocate to Crown Counsel and for them to conduct the review substantially added to the time line.
- In one, a delay of one month in allocating the case to the reviewer, contributed to an overall period of three and half months before the response was issued.
- In the remaining two, no ascertainable reason could be identified for the delay.
112. Revised guidance, recently issued by RIU, introduces a more rigorous process for allocating and monitoring VRRs conducted by Crown Counsel and should assist with addressing delays that have arisen when VRRs are allocated to Crown Counsel.
113. Where there are further inquiries or new information is provided, it is understandable that it may take longer than 20 working days to obtain and consider all relevant information.
114. In some cases that took longer than 20 days, rather than issuing multiple template holding replies, which is unhelpful, RIU provided an explanation for the delay and an indication of the timescale for completion. This provides more meaningful communication and manages the expectations of victims. We commend this approach and advocate that it is consistently applied in all cases that are likely to take longer than 20 days.
COPFS should avoid issuing multiple template holding replies and provide an explanation for the delay and an indication of the timescale for completion for all cases that are likely to take longer than 20 days.