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Towards an efficient system

17 March 08

Cabinet Secretary for Justice emphasises the aims of the summary justice reforms, and the government's commitment to dialogue in making them work

by Kenny MacAskill

When Sheriff Principal John McInnes’s committee reported in March 2004, I don’t think anyone with a working knowledge of Scotland’s summary criminal courts could have been too surprised by what it found.

Despite the commitment and professionalism of those working in the system, too many cases were taking too long to get from charge to conclusion.

As well as being unfair and often distressing to victims and witnesses of crime, the system failed adequately to address the offending behaviour of the accused, with the consequence that a system meant to be providing a swift and appropriate response to offending was all too often not doing so. It also meant that resources allocated to the summary justice system were not being used in the best and most efficient way.

Cross-party support

The Criminal Proceedings etc (Reform) (Scotland) Act 2007 was passed unanimously by the Scottish Parliament. And just as my party supported the programme of reform in opposition, my commitment to it remains unstinting now we are in government. I want to drive forward the reforms to ensure the maximum benefits can be derived.

I am determined to ensure we have a system that is truly summary in nature – smarter and swifter in its handling of offending behaviour. As I have said before, fairness must remain paramount. However, in preserving the rights of the accused we cannot lose sight of the right of victims and witnesses to be treated fairly also, and to be confident that their needs are appreciated and addressed.

One way of achieving this is by taking out of court some more business that can be dealt with more swiftly and proportionately by the use of a non-court option. The legislation therefore extends the range of non-court options, helping to free up court time for those accused and cases that require it. And while we have changed how these are enforced, the accused will always have the right to have the case heard in court.

Clearly, in many cases prosecution will remain the most appropriate option. So it is important that the courts work as well as possible. We are investing in improvements to the lay courts, so they can play a full part in a reformed, modern justice system. The court unification programme is now underway. And improvements to fines enforcement will take unnecessary administrative work away from the courts and police.

Continuing dialogue

Once a case is in court, we are seeking an increased focus on early resolution where possible. Some cases will need to go to trial. But where a case is capable of being resolved by a plea of guilty, it is important that the framework is in place for this to happen as early as possible.

Legal aid reform is an essential part of this. I know that this is an issue which has been, understandably, one of considerable concern to the profession. I am very grateful to the representatives of the profession who have engaged constructively with the government and the Scottish Legal Aid Board to try to agree changes to legal aid which are affordable, reward the profession fairly and support the wider reforms to summary justice. I am confident that the new arrangements will offer a fair deal, but we will keep this under close review, and work with the profession to make any further improvements that prove necessary.

The work, of course, does not end on 10 March. I know the Crown and defence solicitors, and all of the criminal justice agencies, have committed a lot of time and effort into making sure that they are prepared to obtain the maximum benefit from the reforms. I also know that it would be foolish to expect that the culture of the summary justice system can be changed overnight. But we cannot go on as we have been. We need an improved system that makes more efficient use of the people in it, the resources allocated to it, and which is quick, effective and fair to all involved. I know the Society will be watching closely to see how these reforms bed in. So will I, and I look forward to continuing a dialogue with the profession as these roll out. Our summary justice system deals with around 96% of all court cases in this country, and as Cabinet Secretary for Justice I want to see a system which is playing its part in delivering a safer and stronger Scotland.