Court backlogs for murder and rape trials may not be cleared for another three years, Scotland’s Auditor General has warned.
In a new report, auditors assessed court backlogs in Scotland which built up during the Covid-19 pandemic.
In February this year, 28,029 total trials were outstanding compared to 43,606 in January 2022.
The reduction in waits has been credited to Scottish Government efforts which included having jury centres in cinemas and extra courts.
However, while significant progress has been made to reduce delays for summary trials such as common assault and robbery, victims may wait until March 2026 before the most serious of crimes are brought to court.
According to auditors, the backlog of High Court and sheriff solemn cases – the most serious crimes – reached their highest level in January 2023, with about 600 High Court cases and 2,500 sheriff court delays.
In comparison, summary cases have decreased from 40,860 outstanding trials in January 2022 to 24,946 in February 2023.
These delays in bringing these cases to court are expected to be cleared by March 2024.
Reducing the backlogs for solemn cases is challenging because of the increasing numbers of cases coming to court, auditors said.
Since the beginning of 2021/22, sheriff solemn case numbers have continued to be higher than pre-Covid levels, with the quarterly average of 1,441 in 2022/23 compared to 1,296 in 2018/19.
Auditor General Stephen Boyle has warned the Scottish Government’s delivery plan to address further backlogs must be in place “as soon as possible”.
Its publication was due in August 2022 but is now expect this summer.
Mr Boyle said: “The criminal trial backlog that built up during the pandemic has been substantially reduced thanks to effective partnership working, good use of data and innovation.
“But while the overall number has come down, the wait times for the most serious crimes, such as rape, have increased. And those delays come with a human cost for victims, witnesses and defendants.
“That is why it’s vital that the Scottish Government has a delivery plan in place as soon as possible to further address the backlog and reform the criminal courts system.”
Scottish Conservative justice spokesman Jamie Greene said rape, murder and serious assault victims “are being failed” by ministers due to “extremely distressing” delays.
Liam McArthur, the Liberal Democrat justice spokesman, said the Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service deserves credit for driving down court backlogs, but “there is still much to do” in addressing waits for the most serious crimes.
Kate Wallace, chief executive of Victim Support Scotland, said the reduction in backlogs is “encouraging”.
But she said of the delays: “Families tell us this timeframe is unacceptable, traumatising and often they feel unable to grieve the loss of a family member during this long and protracted process.
“The scale of the backlog continues to have a huge negative impact on the health and wellbeing of any person affected by crime, and even more so for the most serious cases.
“With court proceedings being postponed multiple times, many victims feel unable to move on with their lives.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We welcome Audit Scotland’s report, which recognises the hard work of justice partners during the Covid pandemic and the significant progress made in reducing the subsequent backlog of criminal trials.
“We know how distressing delays to cases can be for all involved, and have been working with partners to mitigate the impact of the backlog.
“This includes expanding the use of pre-recorded evidence and introducing legal aid reforms to reduce the number of cases that need to proceed to trial.
“The Scottish Government will publish a delivery plan setting out further actions for the continued recovery and reform of the criminal justice system in the summer.”
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