Serious criminal cases are dealt with under solemn procedure ("solemn cases"). All such cases are heard in the High Court or the Sheriff Court by a judge sitting with a jury of 15 people. This report focuses on cases prosecuted in the sheriff solemn courts.
85% of solemn cases are dealt with in the sheriff court. The complexity of the investigation and prosecution of such cases has evolved to keep pace with the changing nature of crime and societal behaviours including greater use of forensic evidence, CCTV images, evidence from the analysis of mobile phones and other computer devices and the use of social media platforms.
Inevitably the volume and increase in complexity of such cases impacted on the system and, prior to the reforms implemented in 2016, sheriff and jury business was characterised by churn, delays and inconvenience to witnesses, victims and jurors through repeated attendance for cases that did not proceed to trial resulting in the under‑utilisation of court time.
As part of a wider agenda to modernise and deliver justice systems and structures fit for the 21st Century, the Scottish Government commissioned Sheriff Principal Bowen to undertake an independent review in April 2009 to examine "the arrangements for sheriff and jury business, including the procedures and practices of the Sheriff Court and the rules of criminal procedure as they apply to solemn business in the Sheriff Court; and to make recommendations for the more efficient and cost-effective operation of sheriff and jury business in promoting the interests of justice and reducing inconvenience and stress to the victims and witnesses involved in cases".
The report made recommendations designed to tackle procedural and systematic inefficiencies and to change the culture contributing to delays. The legislative provisions reforming sheriff and jury procedure were phased in between 29 May and 31 July 2017.
As all sheriff solemn cases have been investigated and prosecuted under the new sheriff and jury regime since August 2017, it is an appropriate juncture to assess the effectiveness and impact, if any, of the reforms and review the current operation of solemn cases in the sheriff court.
The aim of this inspection was to review and assess the effectiveness of Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) investigation and prosecution of sheriff solemn business following the sheriff and jury reforms, having particular regard to:
- The effectiveness of procedures, processes and systems in ensuring cases are progressed expeditiously;
- The impact of the legislative reforms; and
- The individual needs of the victims.
In doing so we examined:
- The effectiveness and robustness of the systems, processes and procedures governing the prosecution of sheriff solemn cases, including those designed to manage the new time limits;
- The timeliness of the investigation and prosecution of such cases;
- Compliance with statutory obligations and COPFS guidance when engaging with defence solicitors and preparing the written record;
- Reasons for adjournments and delays;
- Whether those investigating and prosecuting sheriff and jury business are sufficiently resourced and trained to provide a high quality service; and
- Whether there is appropriate communication with victims and witnesses throughout the life of the case.
We seek to identify:
- Any weaknesses in the procedures, processes and systems aimed at progressing sheriff solemn cases and make recommendations for improvement;
- Any barriers/impediments to delivering a quality product, and make recommendations for improvement; and
- Good practice.
Scope of the Review
The review does not include any assessment of advocacy or the presentation of cases at court.
While the review is concerned with investigation and prosecution of sheriff solemn cases by COPFS, it is impossible to review the prosecution of such crimes in isolation. The role of the police, courts and judiciary all contribute to the effectiveness of the system and the experience encountered by victims and witnesses.
While our recommendations are directed to COPFS, our findings in some areas go beyond the remit of COPFS recognising that system-wide solutions are required to improve the experience of victims and witnesses.
We adopted a mixed-method approach which combined the following evidence‑gathering methods:
Interviews with personnel, organisations and parties involved with such offences, including:
- Key personnel involved in the investigation and preparation of sheriff solemn cases in COPFS, including prosecutors, Solemn Legal Managers (SLMs), business managers, case preparers, Victim Information and Advice (VIA) officers and administrative support staff.
- Police Scotland, Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service, (SCTS), members of the Judiciary and Scottish Government Justice Directorate.
A Survey of defence practitioners.
Document review: A review of COPFS departmental protocols, policies and guidance, management information, current statistics and trends and profile of cases.
Observation: Various first diet sheriff solemn courts.
File review: We examined 95 cases that were indicted to a sheriff solemn court within the calendar year of 1 January 2018 to 31 December 2018.
We wish to extend thanks to all who facilitated our visits and shared their experience and knowledge.