HC Deb 19 April 1978 vol 948 cc443-6
44. Mr. Teddy Taylor

asked the Lord Advocate what steps he will take to reduce delays in court hearings of criminal cases.

The Lord Advocate

Problems of delay arise mainly in Glasgow. The latest available figures for sheriff and jury cases in Glasgow are as follows: 279 cases awaiting preparation, 248 cases being prepared, 193 cases prepared awaiting allocation of date for trial, and 183 cases ready for trial on dates which have been fixed. In mid-February the corresponding figures were 289, 202, 185 and 151 respectively. I hope hon. Members will bear with me, because I think these figures are of some importance. The two additional sheriff and jury courts which came into operation at the beginning of March 1978 enable an additional 16–18 cases to be dealt with each week.

It will be seen that the largest backlogs are in the categories of cases not prepared. This work is largely done by precognition officers. Steps have been taken to increase their number in Glasgow.

However, I should point out that a material contribution to the reduction of the backlog of cases awaiting trial could be made if persons who initially plead not guilty and ultimately plead guilty were to change their pleas in time for the date of their trials to be reallocated. Last year pleas of guilty were intimated at or shortly before the trial in no less than 46 per cent. of sheriff and jury cases and in no less than 54 per cent. of summary cases. It is not obvious to me that it is in the best interests of a person who is prepared to accept his guilt that he should have the charge hanging over him for a period of months and then receive a term of imprisonment which could have elapsed had he pled guilty at the outset. Similar considerations apply in the case of fines.

Mr. Taylor

Is the Lord Advocate aware of the widespread concern created by recently highly publicised cases in which delays of not months but up to three years have taken place in bringing criminal cases to court, and that delays of this sort can undermine the course of justice? I very much appreciate the action to which the Lord Advocate referred, but does he believe that the action that he has outlined will be adequate to reduce the delays in Glasgow, which, as he says, are and have been very serious for some time?

The Lord Advocate

The fact that a very small number of cases have been highly publicised is really an indication that they are unusual, and in that I take some satisfaction, because in this respect Scotland compares favourably with many other jurisdictions on the matter of delay. It is not unusual to have delays of that order in many other jurisdictions in Western Europe. But I am not satisfied with any unnecessary delay in the administration of justice. I have received or have called for reports on all these cases, and will see what lessons are to be learned from them.

Mrs. Winifred Ewing

Is the Lord Advocate aware that with the pressure building up on the public prosecution system, particularly in the West of Scotland, this in itself leads to a situation in which the fiscal is not available to discuss a partial plea of guilty when it would be logical to do so, in order to save a great deal of time, which, as the Lord Advocate has stressed, is so important?

Does the Lord Advocate agree that very often last-minute pleas of guilty are made precisely because there has been no one available with the decision-making responsibility, as used to be the case in the old days, and that we now have a vicious circle?

Does the Lord Advocate accept that the delay also causes great hardship to many accused persons? He will be aware of cases where accused persons before jury trials have been summoned sometimes on five different occasions, thereby losing infinite job opportunities or, if they have a job, a great deal of salary.

The Lord Advocate

I certainly agree with the hon. Lady that there are occasions when accused persons are prejudiced and, indeed, occasions when accused persons are in a predicament because an agreed plea, or a plea to part of a charge, cannot be negotiated. That aspect, however, is probably a relatively small part of the problem. The problem—I am sure that the hon. Lady will accept this—is one of shortage of staff, both procurators-fiscal and support staff, and it is crucial for us to be prepared to spend the public money necessary in order to ensure that our public prosecution system can be effectively administered. I hope that the whole House will support me in that respect.

Mr. Fairbairn

Since we have the very civilised rule in Scotland that a man cannot be held in prison for 110 days without his trial concluding, will the Lord Advocate also try to make it a civilised precedent in Scotland that if a man gets bail he is also tried within 110 days?

The Lord Advocate

I am happy to accept that as an objective. Unfortunately I cannot hope to bring it down to 110 days.