THE number of social work cases going through Scotland’s justice system experienced an unprecedented collapse during the Covid pandemic, official figures have confirmed.

The total number of social work orders started - including community payback, drug treatment & testing and fiscal work orders - more than halved last year. 

The Scottish Government figures showed 8,513 such orders commenced in 2020/21 compared to 17,564 in 2019/20, a drop of 52 per cent.

The number of individuals subject to orders also slumped, from 14,917 to 7,660, down 49%.

The fall conceded with court and council social work buildings closing and their work moving online, as well as a reduction in reported crime.

Some orders were also cut short to cope with the public health emergency.

The number of community payback orders (CPOs) commenced fell 51%, the number of bail supervision cases fell 48%, and the number of criminal justice social work reports fell 41%.

However there was a 12% rise in diversion from prosecution cases to 2,230.

The National Statistics publication said the break with previous trends was because of the dramatic impact of the Covid lockdown.

“Significant public health measures relating to the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic, including two national lockdowns, were in effect during the 2020-21 recording year,” it said. 

“For example, the temporary closure of a number of courts early in 2020-21, as well as capacity issues when courts reopened, mean that statistics for most areas of criminal justice social work are lower than in previous years. 

“Caution is therefore advised in comparing 2020-21 data with that from earlier years.”

In addition, the drop in CPOs started after March 2021 was “influenced significantly” by Covid regulations that cut the specified hours for unpaid work CPOs by 35%, except for those imposed for domestic abuse, sexual offences or stalking.

With some orders “completed” early by default, the completion rate increased last year, from around 70% to 75%.

SNP Justice Secretary Keith Brown said the Scottish Government had delivered an extra £11.8m of funding to support pandemic recovery in justice social work services, rising to £15m in the coming financial year.

He said: “Like all areas of society, these figures show that COVID has taken its toll on community justice. 

“As a result of the difficult but necessary precautions we took to protect the wider public health it was to be expected that the number of community payback orders commenced would be affected.

“Evidence shows that CPOs work. Individuals released from a prison sentence of 12 months or less are reconvicted nearly twice as often as those given a CPO.

“That is why we have made extra funding of £11.8m available this year, rising to £15m next year, to help these vital services get back on their feet as quickly as possible as we look to recover from the pandemic.” 

But Tory MSP Jamie Greene said the figures pointed to a "soft-touch" approach to justice under the SNP.

He said: "There are record numbers of people being diverted from prosecution in Scotland, meaning these criminals are essentially getting away with their crimes and escaping punishment.

“Yet even when offenders are given community sentences, they’re easier to complete than ever with nearly half not containing any element of unpaid work.

“Furthermore, the SNP shamelessly wrote off hundreds of thousands of hours of uncompleted unpaid work back in January 2021.

“All of this is contributing to a justice system that is stacked in favour of criminals, with victims an afterthought."