SOME of Scotland’s most high-profile lawyers have called for an inquiry into the prosecution service amid concerns about workload and budget pressures to be expanded to include the entire legal system.
They claim scrutiny should be extended to the “huge delays” in fixing high court trials and the under-funded legal aid service as part of a probe into the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) at Holyrood this autumn.
Meanwhile legal body The Faculty of Advocates, which comprises lawyers who have been admitted to practise as advocates, has expressed concerns about the “decision-making processes” of a “struggling” prosecution service for some time.
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It comes amid complaints of widespread delays following the influx of domestic and historic sexual abuse cases that is heaping pressure on Scotland’s courts.
Advocate Niall McCluskey welcomed the inquiry, but called for it to be broadened out to examine funding of the entire legal system which he claims is flagging.
“There are huge delays in fixing high court trials as the court service doesn’t seem to have enough resources, while on the defence side, legal aid is also under-resourced,” he said.
“The whole system needs better funding."
His view is echoed by Brian McConnachie QC, a former senior prosecutor at Crown Office, who claimed Scottish Government cuts to the justice system had left COPFS under-resourced.
He said: “They don’t have the kind of resources they require to properly carry out the prosecution of crime from low level Justice of the Peace courts all the way up to the most serious crimes in the high court.
“It does seem that there are cases that are not being properly prepared, cases having to be put off on numerous occasions because COPFS has had trouble finding witnesses or providing full disclosure to the defence."
He added: “People appreciate that the money isn’t endless, but the skimping that has been done in every aspect of the legal system... if you’re going to continually do that then what you will end up with is a substandard justice system.”
Both advocates told of widespread delays in the country’s high courts, with complainers and suspects having to wait almost a year for the first procedural hearing in court, only for a trial to be fixed six months later, with even further delays likely.
Mr McConnachie also claimed that the recommendation for cases involving an accused on remand to be heard within 140 days was now a “fantasy” due to pressures on both COPFS and the Scottish Court Service, who schedule hearings.
However, Mr McConnachie claimed the probe would likely prove to be little more than a “long involved talking shop with very little impact”.
Gordon Jackson QC, dean of the Faculty of Advocates, said there had been a "feeling that the decision-making processes are not as good as they once were and the frontline is struggling with the resources available”.
Fiona Eadie, secretary of the union’s Procurator Fiscal section, said the pressure on COPFS’s budget is "incompatible with these increased demands".
The Crown Office said it looked forward to working with the committee to highlight its “strong track record in prosecuting crime in Scotland”.