Serious and violent criminals have avoided court and a criminal record under a new Scottish Government initiative introduced to deal with low-level offences.

Thousands of offences, including serious assaults, have been diverted from court and treated with fiscal fines under reforms to the summary justice system that began in March. Scores of other crimes, including sex offences against children, have been downgraded to summary complaints which carry a lesser sentence.

Victims groups reacted with incredulity to the revelation and demanded the policy be reviewed.

When the initiative was introduced on March 10, the Crown Office insisted the diversions would only apply to those accused of low-level offences such as minor assaults, vandalism and shoplifting.

However, The Herald can reveal that those charged with violent crimes including domestic abuse and serious assault, have since been diverted from the courts to be given a range of fiscal punishments including fines of up to £300.

Those diverted from court also avoid a criminal record, although the charge will be held in the system for two years in case they reoffend within that timescale.

In addition, the reforms have meant a significant proportion of serious cases have been downgraded to be heard under summary complaint, with a maximum prison sentence of 12 months.

Lawyers say this equates to a sentence of three months as, in practice, custodial sentences are halved and then often halved again for offenders to be released early on home-detention curfew.

Legal experts say many of these cases are inappropriate for summary complaint and in the past most would have been dealt with by a sheriff and jury and given a longer sentence.

Because of the sentencing restrictions of 12 months, it also means sex offenders can be placed on the register but would not be given supervision in the community.

A list of these cases seen by The Herald at Airdrie Sheriff court alone, includes: l lewd and libidinous conduct against an 11-year-old girl; l assault to severe injury and permanent disfigurement; l lewd and libidinous conduct against a victim with cerebral palsy; l lewd and libidinous conduct against a 12-year-old girl.

Lily Greenan, manager at Scottish Women's Aid, said: "We don't believe pre-trial diversion is an appropriate response to domestic abuse. We are concerned to hear that fiscal fines are being used and we will be exploring this issue with the Crown Office."

David Sinclair of Victim Support Scotland, said: "If serious and violent offenders are bypassing the courts then this is something which needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency."

The Crown Office predicted 28,000 offenders, or 15%, would be punished directly by prosecutors rather than being sent to court.

Anecdotal reports from courts including Edinburgh, Airdrie and Glasgow indicate there has been an estimated 50% decrease.

However, the Crown Office refuted this and said its figures show a 12% drop in prosecutions, in line with its original estimates.

A spokesman for the Crown Office said: "Summary justice reform is about improving the delivery of justice for victims and witnesses. There has been no change in how domestic abuse is prosecuted; Crown Office Procurators-Fiscal Service operates a clear policy that the appropriate action for domestic abuse which involves assault is to prosecute in court.

"With more than 300,000 cases reported each year, it is possible that individual decisions are, on occasion, not taken in accordance with policy and this is why the impact of the reforms is being closely monitored and reviewed by area procurators-fiscal."