SCOTLAND's sheriff court system is facing mounting pressure in the wake of budget cuts and increasing workloads, a report has revealed.
Around half of all criminal cases at the courts do not proceed as planned, with unnecessary additional hearings - known as churn - costing taxpayers an extra £10 million last year.
The Audit Scotland report also shows that fewer cases are being completed within target timeframes and points to budget reductions and an increase in more complex cases, including sexual and domestic abuse crimes, as the causes.
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The findings have prompted widespread criticism of the Scottish Government over cuts to the operational budgets of the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) and the Scottish Courts Service (SCS) of 12 and 17 per cent respectively over the last five years.
Ministers have also been criticised for the decision to close seven sheriff courts in the last year.
The FDA trade union, which represents prosecutors within Crown Office, warned the situation will only worsen unless more money is injected into the system, which already costs around £200m a year.
FDA Scottish secretary Jim Caldwell said: "We believe there's not enough money in the system and not enough prosecutors in the system.
"Unless things change, the service is going to continue to decline and it's the public who are going to suffer."
Mr Caldwell said the issue was not a matter for senior management at COPFS, but for the Scottish Government to address.
He added: "We're not saying we've got to crisis point, but clearly it's becoming incredibly difficult to deliver the service that the public expect and our members want to deliver."
The report shows the number of summary (non-jury) cases completed within 26 weeks - the only public indicator of efficiency at sheriff court level - has fallen each year since 2010/11, with 65 per cent of cases being completed within the timeframe in 2014/15.
In the same year, 11 per cent of summary cases took more than a year to complete.
The report also shows discrepancies between courts in different areas, with the sheriffdom of Glasgow and Strathkelvin dealing with just over half of cases within 26 weeks, compared to Tayside, Central and Fife where 73 per cent meet the timescales.
Of the 214,533 appearances in summary courts during 2014/15, just 52 per cent proceeded as planned, with the remainder subject to a delay or churn.
The report states that investigators heard "frequent reference to workload pressures facing procurator fiscal deputes and the subsequent impact on their readiness for an appearance in court".
Scottish Labour Justice spokesman Graeme Pearson claimed the SNP's record on justice was "nothing short of criminal" and the Scottish Conservatives said the report was "bad news for victims and witnesses" and raised issues over access to justice.
The report makes several recommendations including introducing more detailed performance indicators for sheriff courts and sharing good practice across different sheriffdoms.
It also identifies areas where savings could be made - including a saving of £20-£25m if the system was fully digitised.
Both COPFS and the court service welcomed the report and said they would take on board the recommendations.
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: "Funding to the Courts and Crown and other justice agencies has reduced since 2010/11 due to overall cuts imposed by the Westminster Government.
"We have responded to these pressures, with major reform of the court system and merger of the Courts and Tribunals administration.
"In 2014/15 we provided £1.47 million in additional funding for extra fiscals, court staff and judiciary, to help speed up the delivery of justice and this year we have committed £2.4 million to ensure swift progress of cases involving domestic abuse and sexual violence."