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Chhokar inquiry had cathartic effect on prosecutor

1 June 03

Interview with Norman McFadyen, Crown Agent

by Roger Mackenzie

Working with Robert Gordon, the department’s first Chief Executive, to drive forward the regeneration of the Crown Office and the Procurator Fiscal Service as it emerges from the catastrophe of the Chhokar case, new Crown Agent Norman McFadyen epitomises the spirit of approachability which it is hoped will characterise the organisation as it goes through a radical process of modernisation.

For McFadyen, the Chhokar inquiry was “cathartic in many ways” and he admits the various inquiries which took place in the light of that case helped focus the Crown Office on victims and their needs.

“It is very sad that it took such an incident and personal tragedy to produce the results that it has. But I can say that the clear message to emerge from Chhokar is that our partnership working with the Court Witness Service, Victim Support Scotland and the Police and other agencies has all to a greater or lesser extent been informed by that experience.”

The particular experience of Chhokar, and the increased scrutiny of the way victims are treated have informed the development of the service’s own Victim Information and Advice service – VIA – and has also informed the race and diversity strategy now being implemented by the Crown Office.

For McFadyen, the reforms have mounted to an “external perception and internal feel” that is “quite different now’ from the portrayal in this publication just three years ago of a beleaguered, demoralised service, where underfunding led to regular tales of chronic absenteeism due to stress and excessive working hours, and cases being badly marked or not proceeded with.

He recognises that there is a need to improve the department’s effort in the High Court.   He is keen that advocate deputes are given more time to prepare for court and says the new system which is now being put in place will “give advocate deputes more time and support and ensure the decision making in serious cases is taken by more experienced deputes, adding more value to the process and ensuring there is no question of anyone simply rubber stamping anything”.

The “churn” effect, however, ensures the present system will never be perfect and as long as it remains there are always likely to remain instances where advocate deputes have limited time to prepare for a case, admits McFadyen.

“There are so many cases which are not dealt with at the first trial hearing or even the second or third and that allows cases to slush around the system. The advocate depute has to be familiar with all the cases. It does impose an excessive burden and if there is a need to ensure cases are dealt with, they may have to be moved around at short notice and the degree of preparation time may well be much less than is desirable.

“I would not accept that anyone goes into court unprepared, but they could have a lot more time to prepare and that preparation could be much more useful if it was better structured. Basically it is not satisfactory if someone is going into court to do a sitting which may last two weeks, with a very large number of cases, and where it is a bit of a lottery which one is going to trial. It is asking too much of the individual.”

McFadyen pins his hopes on implementation of the Bonomy report to offer a solution to making the High Court function better. With the Executive committed to bringing forward legislation this session, McFadyen says everyone involved in the criminal justice system owes it to the public to ensure the reform works.

That could include learning lessons from the more efficient way in which the sheriff court disposes of business and taking some of the better practice from the sheriff court across to the High Court, in particular the preliminary hearing, to ensure that the only cases which end up in trial courts, with witnesses cited, are those  “it is very strongly believed” will proceed to trial.

Becoming Crown Agent at a time when funding levels for the Crown Office have risen from £65 million to £78 million in the last year, and set to rise to £87 million in the year ahead, has enabled McFadyen to lead an unprecedented number of solicitors.

The number of lawyers employed in the service has increased 45% since 1997, nine per cent in the last year alone, and at the latest count there were 415 lawyers employed in the service, with further recruitment of both trainees and qualified solicitors planned.

Coupled with a recruitment drive to boost the levels of staff employed at managerial and support staff level and it’s clear that the service has never been better resourced.

“Previously we had concentrated limited resources on recruiting front line lawyers but perhaps we neglected the need to ensure that the legal staff were well supported.

“It was all about getting the balance right; we were under-managed and we did not have enough in terms of support for lawyers. We had recruited as many lawyers as we could afford but the more general boost in staff numbers now has given us the ability to do things we really needed to do.”

Significant too has been efforts to ensure the service is more outward looking, striving to “communicate better with the public and engage with the community”.

“All our areas have resources which are specifically focused on race and engaging with minority communities.  We have gone out to schools and talked to children, and we’re talking to community leaders – generally trying to be more responsive to communities of all sorts.”

Reorganising departments, and splitting the bigger areas down to more manageable sizes, has, says McFadyen, helped establish a clear link between the Area PF and local chief constable. In Glasgow, by far the biggest office, that has meant creating four “virtual” offices to match the four city police divisions.

Complementing that has been a process of team building across the area offices, involving what McFadyen describes as a – literal and metaphorical – knocking down of walls, wherever possible getting the full team together and involved in designing and implementing new ways of working.

“The big thing for us at the moment is the process of modernisation, which was always predicted to take about two years, and we are just over a full year into that. But at the end of the two years we will be much healthier than we were, with a larger staff and better managed and more sophisticated IT systems. In the second stage of that process it’s then essential that we concentrate on giving the public the quality of service it expects. That can be as simple as how we deal with telephone enquiries, or how we deal with people who call into our offices in person, but the softer end can sometimes be harder to get right. Sometimes it’s more easy to turn around the figures, but the challenge now is turning round the quality of service we deliver to the public.”