LEGAL experts have hit out at a “disturbing” increase in the number of criminal cases being dropped due to delays by the police.

Official figures show Police Scotland filed more than 700 reports outwith statutory time limits last year, leaving prosecutors with no choice but to scrap proceedings.

This is more than double the number seen in 2014/15 and the highest level of out-of-time cases in a five-year period.

The Crown Office data also shows a further 1,700 cases were abandoned in 2018/19 due to other delays by the police or reporting agencies – an increase of almost 20% on 2014/15. 

While the majority of the alleged offences involved are minor, some more serious allegations have also been dropped, including firearms, drug dealing and child pornography charges.

Police Scotland said “only a very small proportion” of cases were reported outwith the required time limits, but leading legal figures have called for action on the growing problem, which they claim is linked to police under-funding and 
a lack of resources.

Brian McConnachie, QC, a former senior prosecutor for the Crown Office, said: “This is a worrying trend because it would seem the number of cases being reported overall is decreasing, but the number of cases being reported at a time when they cannot be prosecuted is increasing.

“I suspect it all comes down to the lack of resources. It’s systematic under-funding over many years that results, presumably, in the police not being able to do their jobs as efficiently as they would like to.

“People are entitled to know why the figures are on increasing and are entitled to know what, if anything, is being done about it.

“When you see the lists of the offences, many are extraordinarily trivial, but some of them – on the face of it at least – seem quite serious.

“There was possession with intent to supply, being concerned in the supply, and more worrying ones involving things, such as child pornography. Anything of that sort of nature, the fact no prosecutions are resulting, should be a matter of concern and somebody should have to explain why it’s happening.”

Advocate Niall McCluskey, also a former prosecutor, said some of the more serious matters being dropped are “of significant public concern”.

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He added: “It is a pretty basic mistake to report matters too late and this simply should not be happening with reporting authorities to the extent it is. It begs questions about proper resourcing by the Government with respect to the processing of criminal inquiries.”

The Herald first reported on out-of-time cases in 2015 after a Freedom of Information request, and again in 2018.

At that time, Police Scotland said it would continue working with the Crown Office to ensure standards were “improved as necessary”.

Advocate Thomas Ross, QC, said the recent figures were particularly concerning “not least because, the problem having been identified by The Herald some time ago, the situation has become much worse”.

He added the cases being dropped due to other police delays were “even more disturbing”.

“There is no [time limit] in relation to the serious crime of ‘assault to injury’ so one can only wonder how long the police officers involved took to report the matter to the Procurator Fiscal if no action was taken for that reason,” he said.

“Police Scotland has to explain the reasons for this worrying development, so corrective action can be taken without delay.”

One police source agreed the increase could be down to increasing pressures on the force, but claimed delays with forensic services or other bodies providing evidence could also be at play.

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Advocate John Scott, QC, said many of the cases may not have been prosecuted by the Crown regardless of the delays.

However, the lawyer added: “There’s probably an issue with resources for police and we already know they are very much being squeezed at the moment. 

“If the police are having to make decisions about prioritising things it would make sense that less priority is given to less serious charges, but they should still be reporting them within the time limit so the procurator fiscal can make an informed decision on it, as opposed to the decision in effect being made already because it’s too late.”

Police Scotland said it was committed to investigating and reporting crime in a timely manner.

Chief Superintendent Garry McEwan, Head of Criminal Justice Services Division, said “Officers recognise the time limits in place to report such matters and work diligently to adhere to these, with only a very small proportion ever being reported outwith the required window.

“Nearly 171,000 criminal cases were reported to the Fiscal in 2018/19 and, of these, fewer than 1.5% resulted in no action being taken, due to a delay by police or other reporting agency, or because they were time-barred upon receipt.

“While it would be inappropriate to comment on specific cases that have not been further actioned by the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal, whenever there is a learning outcome for Police Scotland, we take this on board and provide constructive guidance to our officers to avoid similar incidents arising again.”

A Crown Office spokesman said: “The number of cases we receive that are time-barred on receipt form a very small proportion of those reported to us. COPFS hold regular liaison meetings with the police where improvements which can be made in reporting are discussed.

“When a case is time-barred on receipt, this is fed back to the police.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Decisions on staff, officer and specialist deployment and operational priorities are matters for the Chief Constable. However, officer numbers across Scotland are significantly higher than in 2007 – and since then they have fallen by around 19,000 in England and Wales. By protecting the police revenue budget in real terms, we are delivering an additional £100 million throughout this Parliament, with annual funding now more than £1.2 billion.”