Vision and Objectives
125. COPFS published vision is "To be the world leading public prosecution and death investigation service".
126. Within its strategic plan, COPFS includes two objectives which have a direct bearing on its approach to complaints handling and customer service:
- a level of service which takes account of individual needs and characteristics is provided to all;
- victims, nearest relatives and witnesses and those accused of an offence are treated with dignity and respect.
127. Customer service is one of the key elements that define an organisation's effectiveness. Good service demonstrates an organisation that adheres to its organisational values - being professional and showing respect. By better serving those who come into contact with COPFS and clearly demonstrating this, the overall public perception of COPFS can be improved, affecting areas as diverse as complaints, public confidence and staff recruitment and retention.
128. Addressing and learning from complaints where there are identifiable service issues should, therefore, be a priority. Of the 79 complaints examined, 30% flowed from a perceived or real lack of service by COPFS. Examples included:
- Failing to advise a victim that bail conditions had been cancelled
- Discourtesy of staff
- Failure to respond to correspondence, telephone calls, excusal requests
- Delay in returning productions
- Cases not referred to VIA
- Repeated citing of witnesses
- Incorrectly addressed correspondence
- Difficulty in contacting local offices
- Failure to provide a stand-by arrangement for a witness
A witness contacted COPFS to ask if there was any support that could be offered regarding her attendance as a witness. At the outset, she acknowledged her responsibility to attend at court but asked if there was any potential for a stand-by arrangement to be made and highlighted a pre-existing commitment which was of some importance.
The witness advised that the person who she spoke to initially was very understanding, however, on being put through to the case investigator, she was told that she had to be available on a daily basis at court and that attending court took priority over her pre-existing commitment. She was not offered any reassurance or flexibility.
The complainant stated that she felt "completely undervalued as a witness" and that she supported the sentiment that she had heard from other people that she would "think twice before offering to be a witness in the future". Overall, the witness concluded that the attitude of the prosecutor had heightened her level of stress.
The reply issued by RIU acknowledged that the case investigator had reinforced the importance of the witness attending court, explaining that the case investigator was attempting to emphasise the serious nature of the proceedings and the importance of the witness's attendance. This is repeated in the reply on two further occasions. The reply acknowledged the distress and inconvenience that attending court can cause and explained that High Court trials are fluid and can be subject to last minute change. It also referred to the case investigator making enquires to ascertain if there was scope for flexibility although accepts that this was not relayed to the witness.
While it thanked the witness for attending at court, there was no acknowledgement that that her contribution had been undervalued nor was there any apology for failing to engage with the witness about her attendance at court or acceptance that the COPFS had fallen below the appropriate standard of service.
129. Given the importance of witnesses in the justice system, the lack of any attempt to try to accommodate this witness by introducing a stand-by arrangement, or by liaising with the prosecutor to establish if the witness could be excused to attend her pre-existing appointment, failed to address the needs of the witness and place her at the heart of the system. The repeated emphasis by the case investigator and in the written response of the importance of the witness attending court and the seriousness of the offence, which had already been acknowledged by the witness, comes across as somewhat arrogant and lacking in empathy. It demonstrates a focus on process before people.
A witness telephoned to advise that she had a holiday abroad booked for the court date on which she was due to attend as a witness. She also queried whether it was necessary for her to attend as her evidence was non-contentious and factual. She was provided with the email address of the team dealing with the case and she duly emailed explaining the situation. Despite emailing and making several further phone calls, she received no response to her request to be excused attendance at court. One working day before the court date she received a telephone call advising that the case had been postponed and she was no longer required to attend. The person calling had no knowledge of her request for excusal.
The reply from RIU to the witnesses' complaint, apologised that no acknowledgement or response had been issued to the emails requesting excusal although it advised that RIU had 'been unable to confirm that the emails were received' by the team dealing with the case. It also apologised that it had not been explained that the prosecution were seeking to agree her evidence with the defence.
A complainant wrote a letter "in desperation" after calling the COPFS contact centre eight times seeking to have property returned. The case had been concluded four months previously. The staff member at the Enquiry Point apologised for the delay which was caused due to no-one being available at the relevant office to authorise the release of the property.
On receiving the complaint, RIU made immediate arrangements to issue authorisation to the police to return the property.
130. Both case studies highlight a common complaint of failing to reply timeously to inquiries. Similar issues were reflected in feedback obtained from Victim Support Scotland (VSS) and a recent COPFS customer survey.
131. We met with representatives from VSS to gain feedback of the user/victim experience of contact with the prosecution service and their complaints system.
132. We heard various accounts of victims' experiences of the prosecution service across urban and rural parts of Scotland.
133. Of the cases highlighted, the common themes of dissatisfaction were:
- lack of explanation;
- lack of communication;
- perception that offenders are better informed than families and victims; and
- delays in Sheriff and Jury cases.
134. We found a lack of awareness of the COPFS complaints process among the VSS representatives and a general belief that correspondence with an MSP, escalating to the Lord Advocate, was the only way to make a complaint heard.
135. As VSS has a valuable role in supporting and advising victims of crime, there is an opportunity for COPFS to raise the visibility of their complaints policy and the role of RIU with Victim Support staff.
136. VSS representatives also raised a perceived gap in the information available to help victims and witnesses understand the legal process. This suggests that there may be scope for partnership working across the criminal justice system to publish basic information in plain English covering legal processes from the victims'/witnesses' perspective.
COPFS Customer Survey
137. COPFS conducted a customer survey over a two-week period in April 2015. We understand this is the first time that COPFS has undertaken a survey of its users in this manner and although some of the feedback may be uncomfortable for the organisation, we applaud this development as a positive indication that COPFS is taking its published commitment to listen and record feedback seriously.
138. The survey was promoted through the news feed on the COPFS website, the COPFS Twitter account and included in the pre-recorded message greeting callers to the Enquiry Point.
139. A total of 79 customers completed the survey. The majority of respondents (58%) had contacted COPFS to ask for information about a case in which they were involved as either a victim/witness or accused. Of the 79 respondents, 68% had telephone contact with COPFS.
140. Although the customer satisfaction ratings appear disappointing, with 58% of respondents stating they are "extremely dissatisfied" with the service received from COPFS, the result should be taken with a 'health warning', in that the number of respondents is not statistically significant in relation to the number of people who come into contact with COPFS and in any self-selecting sample there is a greater tendency for those who are unhappy with a service to be motivated to complete a survey seeking feedback.
141. Nevertheless, there is resonance between the recurring themes emerging from the customer survey and from our case review of complaints handling, namely:
- lack of information/communication about what is happening with a case;
- inaccessibility of staff in local offices to answer questions/deal with issues;
- correspondence not being acknowledged or answered; and
- delays in returning productions.
142. Some of the respondents took the time to provide constructive suggestions to improve the service provided by COPFS. One such suggestion was creating a system which allows victims and defence solicitors to log in to access information as an alternative to phoning. We were advised that COPFS is developing a website to enable witnesses and victims to access information on their cases electronically. The suggestion should also be addressed by the justice public information portal that is being developed as part of the Scottish Government's Digital Strategy for Justice in Scotland.