1. There is strong cultural awareness within COPFS of the importance of ensuring that solemn cases are progressed and prosecuted within statutory time limits.
2. Approximately 5,300 serious cases are prosecuted each year. However, whilst COPFS has a strong track record of compliance with statutory time limits, the combination of an increasing volume of serious cases, the changing profile of serious offending and the greater complexity of such cases, all in the context of reducing budgets, has impacted on its ability to progress High Court cases expeditiously. This increases the risk that cases may be lost if time limits are not managed effectively.
3. Managing time limits has become more complex as the criminal landscape has changed over recent years. For example:
- Crime has become increasingly global resulting in more crimes being reported that transcend territorial boundaries, as well as the evolution of ever more sophisticated means of committing and detecting crime. This brings challenges for investigators and prosecutors working to strict time limits;
- There has been an increase in the overall volume of serious crime reported by the police as well as a marked change in the profile of such cases, including a substantial increase in reports of sexual crime;
- Multiple-accused prosecutions, often with different time limits for different accused, are more common, as are accused persons with a number of cases proceeding simultaneously all with different time limits; and
- The different procedural regimes that apply to cases prosecuted in the High Court and Sheriff Courts provide an additional complication.
4. All these factors, when set in the context of budgetary reductions pose significant challenges for COPFS in the management of its solemn business.
5. Against this background, we found that, whilst adherence to time limits is a high priority and it is generally recognised that all those involved in the prosecution of a case share the responsibility to manage this, there is a lack of clarity about who has responsibility for ensuring that time limits are accurately recorded at each stage of proceedings. Further, the systems employed for recording and monitoring time limits are varied and inconsistent.
6. There is no national system for managing time limits and so a plethora of auditing and monitoring arrangements has evolved, in the form of numerous spreadsheets, check lists, reports run from different COPFS management information systems and reports issued from the national Management Information Unit (MIU). This proliferation of checking mechanisms often results in unnecessary duplication of work and effort at different stages of the progress of a case. Further, some systems calculate time limits electronically and others manually, which raises a risk of discrepancies arising.
7. Digital advancements provide the opportunity to simplify and streamline some of the processes and procedures to assist with the management of time limits.
8. Whilst there is general awareness of the importance of cases progressing within statutory time limits, there is a lack of understanding on the part of some staff of the legal consequences of failing to do so.
9. Other than some basic information on time limits delivered at the Case Preparer's course, designed for all involved in preparing Sheriff and Jury cases for prosecution, there is no training programme for solemn legal or administrative staff on the legal requirements or the management of time limits. Training on this crucial aspect of the prosecution process is primarily delivered through "on-the-job" learning. The Knowledge Bank contains some guidance, but it is piecemeal and spread across a number of different guidance manuals. There is no single guidance source or aide memoire explaining the law and relevant authorities.
1. COPFS should introduce a formal reporting regime for solemn cases that fail to comply with statutory time limits.
2. COPFS should explore with the Criminal Courts Rules Council, the possibility of amending Court rules relating to the service of indictments to enable service by means of electronic transmission to the accused person's legal representative.
3. COPFS should implement monthly reconciliation of all High Court cases between the High Court Unit at Crown Office and the Federation High Court Hubs.
4. COPFS should issue guidance requiring the review by the Solemn Legal Manager (SLM) of any solemn case in which additional charges and/or information is received that potentially changes the character of the case and thus the appropriate forum for prosecution and applicable time limits. If there has been an initial instruction by Crown Counsel, such cases should be re-submitted for further consideration.
5. COPFS should formalise procedures to check the accuracy of the calculation of time limits at the start of the life of a case. The calculation should be checked with the information recorded by the Scottish Court Service (SCS) and verified by the SLM. Any subsequent amendment of the time limit should be entered on the COPFS case management system and similarly checked by the SLM.
6. COPFS should amend the Sheriff and Jury Case Preparation Living Document to include the following data:
- The time limit for proceeding in the High Court for any cases considered borderline between Sheriff and Jury and High Court;
- Where appropriate, the summary time limit for any statutory offences; and
- Any amended time limits.
7. COPFS should include a dedicated sheet within the Sheriff and Jury court folder detailing all relevant time limits which is updated following each court hearing.
8. COPFS should ensure that in all High Court and Sheriff and Jury cases that have been conjoined or where a sentence has interrupted the time limit, the new time limit for each case is reviewed by the SLM and recorded on the system and on the court files.
9. COPFS should develop a comprehensive training package on the Management Information Book (MI Book) for delivery to all solemn managers.
10. COPFS should develop a national uniform and comprehensive suite of management information to facilitate the effective management of the progress of solemn cases and time limits. This should include key indicators including those data integrity reports that provide a check of data essential for the accurate recording of time limits. A standard template for the collation of such information should be introduced.
11. COPFS should ensure that the roles and responsibilities of those attending senior management meetings to monitor the progress of solemn cases are clearly defined and that there are contingency arrangements to deal with the absence of key personnel who attend such meetings.
12. COPFS should introduce mandatory training on all aspects of time limits for all legal and administrative staff involved in the investigation, preparation and management of solemn cases.
13. COPFS should introduce a new milestone to indict all High Court bail cases seven days prior to the expiry of the 10 month time limit.