Victims of sexual crime facing delays in their cases reaching trial may lead to them losing confidence in the criminal justice system, a report has found.
A review by HM Inspectorate of Prosecution in Scotland said delays have a “serious impact” on those involved and may “limit their ability to move on from what may well be the most traumatic experience of their lives”.
It also noted the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in significant delays in cases ready for trial.
The report follows the inspectorate’s 2017 review of the investigation and prosecution of sexual crime, which made 12 recommendations aimed at supporting the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) to reduce the “journey time” of cases and improve communication with victims and witnesses.
The inspectorate said “considerable progress” had been made, noting that eight of the 12 recommendations have been achieved, three are in progress and one is no longer relevant given changes to working practices.
However, it said delays still occur and there is scope for improving communication with victims, although some issues are not entirely within the power of COPFS to address.
Laura Paton, HM Chief Inspector of Prosecution in Scotland, said: “Delays risk victims and witnesses disengaging from the criminal justice process and risk them losing confidence in the criminal justice system.
“Delays may also put at risk their ability to give their best evidence when the trial finally takes place and may limit their ability to move on from what may well be the most traumatic experience of their lives.
“It is therefore imperative that all agencies within the criminal justice system work together to minimise delay and ensure the system operates as efficiently and effectively as possible.”
The report also examined the impact of the coronavirus pandemic which saw jury trials suspended for some time.
In one of the 50 cases it reviewed, in which the accused, victims and a witness are children, the case is not due to be called for an adjourned preliminary hearing until almost two years after the police reported the incident to COPFS.
It said delays to the case have now been exacerbated by Covid-19 and warned that the children involved are “at risk of being retraumatised by delays in the criminal justice process”.
A COPFS spokesman said: “COPFS is committed to improving the experiences of victims and witnesses within the criminal justice system, and to ensuring that cases progress more efficiently through the prosecution process.
“We will carefully consider the Inspectorate’s new recommendations and seek to implement changes, where appropriate, to reflect them.”
A Police Scotland spokesman said: “We note the recommendations and will continue to work with justice sector colleagues to address these and to ensure that our response to victims is and continues to be as supportive as possible.”
A spokesman for the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service said: “The Lord Justice Clerk, Lady Dorrian, is currently chairing a cross justice review of the management of sexual offence cases. The review group is considering how court process and the experiences of complainers and witnesses can be improved without compromising the rights of an accused.
“The review will include potential changes to court and judicial structures, skills development and procedure and practices. The outcome of the review is expected to be published in the autumn.”