10. The aim of this inspection was to review and assess the effectiveness of COPFS management of statutory time limits in serious cases having particular regard to:
- The effectiveness of procedures, processes and systems aimed at ensuring compliance with time limits for initiating proceedings in both bail and custody solemn cases
- Governance and accountability arrangements
- The integrity of management information tools
- Audit and reconciliation processes
What are time limits?
11. Time limits regulate the maximum length of time that can elapse between the first time a person appears in court charged with an offence and the start of their trial on that charge. Different time limits apply depending on whether an accused person is in custody or on bail. Time limits are also an important means of ensuring compliance with the requirements under Articles 5 and 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights: that an individual should not be deprived of their liberty for longer than reasonably necessary to bring them to trial; and that trials be brought within a reasonable time.
12. Time limits have been part of Scots law for at least three centuries. They act as a compulsitor on the prosecution to proceed efficiently and confer a right of finality on those against whom proceedings have been brought.
13. The overriding strategic purpose of COPFS is to secure justice for the people of Scotland. Central to that aim is the expeditious prosecution of serious crime, with due regard to the interests of justice, and within time limits which are among the tightest in comparable jurisdictions across the world. In many other jurisdictions, including England and Wales, there is no time limit for cases where accused persons are not in custody.
14. 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.
15. The responsibility for complying with statutory time limits rests with COPFS. 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.
16. We found that there is significant awareness within COPFS of the importance of adhering to time limits. The priority given to complying with time limits and the confidence in the management of time limits is perhaps best demonstrated by the absence of any system for reporting cases where the time limit has expired to Crown Office, as such an occurrence is not contemplated. In contrast, the Crown Prosecution Service in England and Wales (CPS) has a detailed reporting regime for failures to comply with custody time limits. The reports must detail actions that have been taken to address the cause of the failure. This was formalised following reports by Her Majesty's Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate (HMCPSI) and is intended to reinforce a cultural change whereby CPS prosecutors take responsibility for the calculation of and compliance with time limits at an early stage.
17. A similar approach should be adopted by COPFS to ensure that there is an accurate record of solemn cases that fail to comply with statutory time limits to enable the cause of the failure to be identified and actions taken to avoid repetition.
|COPFS should introduce a formal reporting regime for solemn cases that fail to comply with statutory time limits.
Evidence was obtained from a range of sources, including:
- Interviews with key individuals from COPFS
- A review of relevant departmental protocols and guidance
- Analysis of current statistics, trends and age profile of cases
- A review of existing databases and management information systems
- Visit and interviews with those responsible for managing time limits in England and Wales