Court pilot leads to ‘substantial reduction’ in police witnesses attending court unnecessarily

A pilot scheme introduced at three Scottish courts to improve the processing of summary crime has led to a third fewer police witnesses being cited in domestic abuse cases in its first 12 months.

Nov 15, 2023
By Paul Jacques

Police Scotland says this frees-up “valuable time for them to be in communities preventing crime”.

The current system meant police officers often spent “considerable time” on court business and could have rest time disrupted by requests for attendance.

An interim report on the Summary Case Management (SCM) pilot published on Wednesday (November 15) found that in the past 12 months at least 250 summary trials did not require to be assigned in the pilot courts, directly as a result of early resolution.

There was a 34 per cent reduction in the first citation of police witnesses in domestic abuse cases in the aggregated pilot courts and a 25 per cent reduction in the first citation of civilian witnesses.

The aim of the SCM pilot, introduced at Dundee, Hamilton and Paisley Sheriff Courts in September last year, was to reduce the number of unnecessary hearings at summary level by facilitating early disclosure of evidence, early engagement between the Crown and defence and early judicial case management.

This would reduce the number of cases set down for trial unnecessarily and reduce the volume of late pleas of guilty and late decisions to discontinue proceedings.

Police Scotland Assistant Chief Constable (Criminal Justice) Wendy Middleton: said: “SCM reduces the number of witnesses required to attend court to give evidence in summary criminal cases, minimising the impact on both victims and witnesses.

“By using a trauma-informed approach and an understanding of the needs of victims, we work hard to get it right for victims from the first point of contact, and this enables us to obtain the best key evidence to enable early resolution of these cases.

“Targeting cases, especially domestic abuse cases, in this way creates a supportive environment for victims and witnesses and reduces the trauma of attending court to give live evidence in the same room as their abuser.

“The current system often means police officers spend considerable time on court business and can have rest time disrupted by requests for attendance.

“Reducing citations for officers frees up valuable time for them to be in communities preventing crime and addressing threat, risk and harm.”

In terms of the pilot, key evidence was available to be released to the defence prior to or at the first calling in all domestic abuse cases.

Specified disclosure material can be requested where it is considered that such early disclosure may make a material difference to a plea or the early resolution of issues in all non-domestic abuse cases.

Sheriff Principal Aisha Anwar, who has been leading the development of the SCM pilot said: “These early outcomes represent tangible benefits to each justice partner organisation, with room for further improvement.

“Importantly, the SCM pilot is improving the efficiency of our summary criminal courts to the benefit of complainers, witnesses, the accused and wider society.

“As a result we are now looking to roll out the pilot to other areas starting with domestic abuse cases in Glasgow Sheriff Court at the end of January 2024.

“The pilot can only operate successfully with the cooperation of those who work across the justice sector, including Police Scotland, the Crown and the defence.

“I thank them for engaging positively with the pilot, which is having a significant impact on the number of unnecessary hearings and the number of witnesses cited in summary courts”.

Jennifer Harrower, Deputy Crown Agent for local court at the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) said: “It is clear from the report that several benefits have been achieved as a result of the pilot. Partnership working has addressed the concerns of many impacted by crime and made it easier to seek earlier resolution with more efficient agreement of evidence.

“The new approach taken by COPFS as part of the pilot has been to engage at an earlier stage with victims of domestic abuse by offering more direct and proactive communications with prosecutors.

“Victims have told us this has made them feel listened to and included. We are pleased that this work will expand to Glasgow in 2024.”

Peter Lockhart, solicitor and member of the Law Society’s Criminal Law Committee, said the benefits and opportunities for defence agents were “clear to see”.

“Being provided with full disclosure at the earliest opportunity allows instructions to be taken from clients, with pleas negotiated where possible,” he said.

“If this is not possible, both Crown and defence will be aware at the earliest stage of the essential points in dispute at trial. This should result in further agreement of evidence and a reduction in the number of witnesses.

“These factors taken together will reduce the amount of unproductive time defence agents spend in court.”

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