6 Undertakings and wider SJR outcomes
Awareness of the reforms in practice
6.1 The majority of professional stakeholders interviewed were aware that changes to undertakings were introduced at the start of 2008 and had good general awareness of what the reforms entailed from a process level. There was less understanding of the philosophy underlying the reforms to undertakings, and SJR more generally.
6.2 Overall, of those interviewed, the police had the greatest level of awareness of the undertakings reforms and the associated impact on their own workloads. Generally, police referred to 'undertakings' as 'police bail' and described the purpose of the reforms as being to bring cases to court quicker, reduce wasted court time and increase efficiency, making things fairer, so that people are not held in police custody for excessive lengths of time, and allowing special conditions to be given when someone is released on an undertaking.
6.3 Interviews with Sheriffs revealed much less awareness and knowledge of the specific undertakings reforms compared to other reforms. Sheriffs intimated that this is an area that affects them less and is of greater interest and relevance to the police than themselves. Indeed, how the case comes to court does not impact on the role of the Sheriff who deals with each case on merit and applies the law in determining issues before them.
6.4 Defence Agents generally seemed aware of the reforms to undertakings, only as a consequence of a perceived increase in the use of undertakings by the police, and perceived greater use of conditions on undertakings being imposed by the police.
6.5 Procurators Fiscal generally described the reforms in terms of allowing cases to be fast tracked to court.
Meeting the intended outcomes
6.6 As a package, the summary justice reforms had a number of specific intended outcomes, some of which were more directly relevant to undertakings than others. The outcome that was perhaps most closely associated with reforms to undertakings was that, for those cases that do come to court, they will do so more quickly.
Cases coming to court more quickly
6.7 When questioned about whether or not the reforms to undertakings had contributed to cases coming to court more quickly, most police supervisors felt that there had been a "definite improvement" [Police Operational Supervisor] and that undertakings "had vastly improved the system" [Police Operational Supervisor]. This was despite some officers saying that bringing cases to court more quickly reduced the amount of time they had to carry out a full enquiry and that speed had impacted on police workloads (as discussed in the previous chapters).
6.8 Importantly, the extent to which speedier justice was perceived to be being achieved again varied by area, with police officers in Lothian and Borders and Central stating there was a noticeable change with regard to undertakings, but officers in Ayrshire and Glasgow and Strathkelvin stating the change was too slight to comment on:
"Undertakings was seen as a quicker way of getting people through the system…so cases would come to court within 28 days instead of up to 18 months after the event. With undertakings, start to finish it's a lot quicker, that's what I've noticed generally. In that way I'd say it's been a positive, and it continues to be a positive." [Police Officer]
6.9 Almost all Defence Agents interviewed also agreed that the changes to undertakings had contributed to cases coming to court more quickly.
6.10 Numeric data also show that cases are reaching the pleading diet more quickly, with police 28 day targets largely being met and Fiscal case marking also on target.
6.11 Again, the issue does not seem to be one of getting people to court, but rather it is about the progress of the case through court thereafter. Data relating to the percentage of summary cases dealt with within 26 weeks (shown in Figure 4.5 and discussed above) shows that, while the national target of 60% is being met across all case types, there has been a notable drop in the percentage of undertakings proceeding quickly through court over time, though they are still generally more likely to meet the target than cited cases. Data on the average time taken for all case types to progress through court from caution and charge to verdict (shown in Figure 4.6 and discussed above) also supports this drop in speed and shows that the average time for undertakings cases has increased from a low of 89 days in April 2007 to a high of 142 days in October 2011. The number of undertakings cases concluding at first calling is also dropping, and the average number of diets per case is increasing.
6.12 The KPI data shows, therefore, that although undertakings cases are getting people to court, and are still being concluded faster end-to-end than cited cases, undertakings cases may be requiring more resources (in terms of court time) than cited cases and there may be room for further efficiencies to be achieved.
Wider SJR outcomes
6.13 Each of the individual reform areas had their own specific policy objectives, but from the start, it was asserted that each reform would only be considered a success if they were achieved in a way which was consistent with the overarching objectives of SJR to lead to a system which is:
- fair to the accused, victims and witnesses;
- effective in deterring, punishing and helping to rehabilitate offenders;
- efficient in the use of time and resources; and
- quick and simple in delivery.
Fair to victims, witnesses and the accused
6.14 It was considered by most interviewees that the changes to undertakings have resulted in fairness to the accused as they know when they leave the police station where and when they require to attend at court for their first appearance. Indeed, the mostly frequently cited benefit of undertakings by the police, and a reason for supporting their increased use, was that the accused leaves the police station with a date and time of when to attend court. This ensures the summons does not get lost in the post, that if the accused moves house their summons will not be delivered to the previous address, etc. Police welcomed this increased efficiency (where it was working):
"From a summons perspective, if you're waiting for things to go through and letters to be sent, then people change addresses, letters get lost in the post. At least with undertakings you know that you've given them the court date away with them, they know where they need to be and when." [Police Officer]
6.15 Additionally, bringing cases to court earlier means the accused is 'dealt with' more quickly instead of waiting several months for their case to be heard initially. This is, of course, only true in cases where the case is not held up as a result of lack of preparation time before first appearance. Even where cases are marked as Fiscal direct measures after the initial undertaking, this may still also be faster than if the accused was released pending citation to appear at court before going on to receive a Fiscal direct measure.
6.16 For those accused who were first time offenders, or did not have frequent contact with the criminal justice system, it was thought to be particularly fair:
"If you don't have a lot of involvement with the police, it's your first offence and you made a mistake, then at least it's over with more quickly, rather than it hanging over your head. In that way it's more fair to them." [Police Officer]
6.17 Additionally, it was considered to be fair to victims and witnesses in cases where the undertaking proceeds to trial soon after first calling in court. In particular, a quicker time from incident to trial has the advantage of enabling victims and witnesses to recall events while they were fresher in their minds, with less time to worry about their court appearance:
"It puts less stress on victims, firstly to be able to remember what happened, but also not having to wait for the looming court case." [Police Officer]
"It speeds up cases coming to trial a lot quicker so it's fresher in your mind and the mind of witnesses. People get closure a bit quicker too." [Police Officer]
"I think in truth, the quicker any trial comes to fruition the better instead of it languishing for 4 to 6 months…that allows more time for witnesses to be intimidated. Any improvement with the trial speed is worthwhile." [Police Officer]
6.18 Overall, the consensus seemed to be that anything which brings the court case to an end quickly was welcomed and this was more likely for undertakings cases where the average end-to-end time was faster than for cited cases.
Effective in deterring, punishing, and helping to rehabilitate offenders
6.19 There were few observations with regards to this outcome, except from the police. Some felt that, for some offenders where drug or alcohol misuse was a factor in their offending behaviour, cases coming to court more quickly would help speed up their sentencing and any associated access to drug or alcohol rehabilitation or support.
6.20 For the police, the fact that breach of an undertaking or undertaking conditions was another arrestable offence was also seen as something that may act as a deterrent from committing another crime whilst on an undertaking. Defence Agents and Fiscals seemed sceptical of this prospect.
Efficient in the use of time and resources
6.21 At the initiation stages, police officers considered that the changes to undertakings had been largely efficient in the use of time and resources because everything in the process was done quicker:
"It's certainly more efficient for us. I'm the type of person who likes working to a deadline so it's better for me." [Police Officer]
6.22 The ability to 'book' time slots in the undertaking court for the first appearance was also welcomed:
"I quite like it the way it is, you go in, you pick your date as and when you've got them in the cells, you're doing the whole process there and then. You've got your undertaking date sorted so you know when it's going to happen." [Police Officer]
6.23 Most Defence Agents also considered undertakings to be efficient in terms of getting the accused to court more quickly, however, they felt the changes fell down in respect of 'wasting the time' of Defence Agents and their clients. Again, they felt this happened when the Fiscal had not yet marked the case for the pleading diet, or when it was decided that the case should be dealt with by alternative measures, but the defence agent or their client had not been informed of this before the day:
"The use of undertakings is efficient in terms of it saving police stations being full with people who could easily be let loose in the world again. But the efficiency is clouded somewhat when three weeks later the Procurator Fiscal is having a look at the papers to actually mark it, and that's not terribly efficient and can lead to an awful lot of people waiting about for lengthy times." [Defence Agent]
6.24 Procurators Fiscal also supported the principle of the use of undertakings in increasing their own personal efficiency, but whether this efficiency is being achieved remains to be seen:
"If the police are using undertakings more often to either prevent a lot of cases coming into the custody court or to prevent a lot of cases sitting in in-trays for a long time, I can see that's very much a better position to be in…that's not based on hard evidence, just my thoughts." [Procurator Fiscal]
Quick and simple in delivery
6.25 Most respondents felt that the process of undertakings was clear and simple to understand for all, including the accused:
"It's clearer for everybody from start to finish, everybody knows the process, what's expected of them, even the accused knows exactly what's happening rather than waiting for things to appear." [Police Officer]
6.26 There was little offered by those interviewed in terms of ways in which the process could be simplified further, except to ensure that loopholes be closed to avoid case marking changes not being communicated to all those concerned.
6.27 In summary, there is generally good understanding of undertakings and the reforms, as well as general support for the principles of speeding up the justice process by increasing their use.
6.28 Although undertakings cases are coming to court quickly and are still meeting overall end-to-end targets (i.e. achieving speed), there is evidence that greater efficiency could be achieved if the number of diets could be further reduced and more cases concluded at first calling in court. Improved communications between Fiscals, Defence Agents and accused, and more flexibility in preparation time for complex cases may improve effectiveness of undertakings if it allows either for better preparation ahead of court appearances or for earlier pleas.
6.29 There is nothing in the data to suggest that further improvements are required to make undertakings any simpler except, perhaps, for improved communications again between Fiscals, Defence Agents and accused with regard to the nature of complaints and case marking decisions.
Email: Carole Wilson
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