Journey times in the Scottish Criminal Justice System: 2023-24

This bulletin assesses an accused person’s criminal justice journey time from offence date to case conclusion or verdict for the period from 2023 to 2024. This journey time is broken down by justice system stage and type of crime.

3. Background

The information presented in this bulletin illustrate some of the key trends in journey times for accused persons in the Scottish criminal justice system. For the purposes of this bulletin, a journey through the criminal justice system begins when an offence is committed and ends when Police Scotland or COPFS close the case or with the accused’s verdict and sentencing in courts, if applicable. Therefore, depending on the nature and severity of the charges involved, an accused can leave the criminal justice system via Police Scotland, COPFS or at court. The original purpose of this bulletin was to report on offence to verdict time for victims of sexual crimes. Therefore, sexual crimes are prioritised throughout this bulletin. This is different from other published justice statistics in Scotland which consider non-sexual crimes of violence before sexual crimes. Sexual crime can involve a lengthy investigation stage, this combined with the fact that a large proportion of sexual crimes reported to police are historic can result in longer journey times for these crimes.

When an incident is reported to the police, they begin by considering whether a crime has been committed. If a crime has been committed and a suspect is identified, then police will follow one of three routes: decide that no further action is necessary, issue a fixed penalty notice or recorded police warning (police direct measures) or submit a report to COPFS.  In cases where a police direct measure is issued, the time from an individual being cautioned or charged with an offence to being issued with a direct measure is usually short, if not immediate. The time allowed for consideration of direct measures has been increased from 7 to 28 days. This may allow for increased use of police direct measure as a disposal for low level offending in the future. Due to the rapid disposal of these cases, they are therefore not included in the scope of this bulletin. If a report is submitted to COPFS, the procurator fiscal will decide how to proceed with the case. This can involve taking no action (e.g. where there is not enough evidence), issuing a Fiscal direct measure (e.g. alternative to prosecution, fiscal fine or warning letter) or submitting the case for prosecution in court.

This bulletin uses two datasets supplied by COPFS and SCTS covering April 2017 to March 2024 the time period to calculate accused journey times from offence date to conclusion. Both datasets consist of management information derived from live operational databases and as such may be subject to minor changes over time. The data sets have been subject to each organisation’s internal quality assurance procedures before being used for this analysis. Using these data sets, the bulletin presents information on median times (along with the 90th percentile time and number of case-accused, provided in the Supplementary tables) for accused persons from the date of an offence to the date that the case is closed by COPFS or they are disposed in Court (i.e. the accused is given a verdict).

As with many other areas, the COVID-19 pandemic caused significant disruption and presented significant challenges for the operation of the justice system. Under emergency legislation enacted following the onset of the pandemic, the statutory time in which different parts of a criminal case had to be concluded were extended. Compliance with public health measures during the pandemic influenced operations across the criminal justice system. The Lord Advocate issued revised guidelines on the use of police custody, and the courts had to close for extended periods or operate at reduced capacity. The necessity for non-essential court business to be suspended and the need for social distancing rules to be considered as courts re-opened will have lengthened case journey times. In addition, the effects of the pandemic on police and COPFS workforces may also have impacted the growth in system backlogs and case journey times. The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have added significantly to the age profile of business in hand which in turn will affect journey lengths.

This bulletin does not address the reasons for any changes in journey times. The individual organisations are best placed to offer insights into the drivers of any change.



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