The Scottish justice system is creaking under the “increasing pressure” of budget cuts, overworked prosecutors and a rise in complex cases involving historical sexual abuse, an analysis by the public spending watchdog has found.
The strain on the country’s legal system is so severe that in the last year almost half of court appearances for less serious crimes did not go ahead as planned, leading to around £10 million of taxpayers’ money being wasted as proceedings were repeated, Audit Scotland said in a newly-published report.
Politicians have warned that the situation is “only going to get worse” due to the impact of the SNP’s cost-cutting programme, which has seen ten sheriff courts and seven justice of the peace courts being closed across Scotland.
Audit Scotland’s report found that the number of less serious court cases reaching a conclusion within the target time of 26 weeks had fallen by 8 per cent over the past five years. Over a third took more than six months to reach a verdict, while 11 per cent took more than a year.
It added that the budgets of the Scottish Court Service and Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service had fallen by 28 per cent and 14 per cent respectively since 2010/11, while the overall Scottish Government budget had only been cut by 7 per cent.
“Like many parts of the public sector, the sheriff court system is facing falling budgets,” said Caroline Gardner, the Auditor General for Scotland. “Together with an increasing focus on cases which are more complex, this is putting pressure on the system as a whole.”
Scottish Conservative justice spokeswoman Margaret Mitchell said the country’s courts had “never had it so tough”, pointing the finger of blame at the SNP. “The compromising of the efficiency of our courts is evident from the number of cases taking longer to reach conclusion,” she said.
“That’s bad news for victims and witnesses, and for the taxpayer who funds the court service to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds. More worrying still, things are only going to get worse as the full effects of the SNP court closure programme kicks in.”
However, a spokesperson for the Scottish Government insisted that the justice system had a “good and improving” record, pointing out that crime had fallen to a 41 year low. “Funding to the Courts and Crown and other justice agencies has reduced since 2010/11 due to overall cuts imposed by the Westminster Government,” they added.
“We have responded to these pressures, with major reform of the court system and merger of the Courts and Tribunals administration, while maintaining wide and effective access to justice.