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Hundreds of drug-driving cases left unprosecuted due to delays – police watchdog

Hundreds of drug-driving cases will go unprosecuted due to delays in forensic testing, the Scottish Police Authority has said (David Cheskin/PA)
Hundreds of drug-driving cases will go unprosecuted due to delays in forensic testing, the Scottish Police Authority has said (David Cheskin/PA)

Hundreds of drug-driving cases will not be prosecuted due to a backlog in tests in what has been described as “a serious failure”.

More than 5,600 drug-driving blood samples have been tested since 2019 when new legislation was introduced in Scotland making it an offence to drive while under the influence of certain drugs, including cocaine, morphine and cannabis.

As at 20 May 2022, 386 cases cannot be prosecuted because they have reached the statutory 12-month time limit due to delays in forensic testing, the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) said.

The organisation, a public body of the Scottish Government which holds Police Scotland to account, warned more cases are anticipated to reach the statutory limit in the months ahead.

SPA chairman Martyn Evans said the delays mean the justice system has seen an impact on the ability to prosecute 386 cases – about 7% of total drug-driving cases – so far.

“We are deeply concerned that 386 drug-driving cases cannot be progressed to prosecution due to testing and analysis not being processed within an adequate timeframe,” he said.

“It is a serious failure.”

He added: “There is no doubt that demand for this service has been underestimated.”

In response to the new offence, which came into force in October 2019, Police Scotland started roadside mouth-swab testing for cannabis and cocaine on any motorist they suspected of being impaired while driving under the influence of drugs.

It is a crime to drive in Scotland if you are over the limit for certain prescribed drugs. And there is a zero tolerance approach to driving after taking illegal drugs.

Demand for testing has been more than twice what was estimated originally, the SPA said, and the Forensic Services laboratory set up to support this increase has been reporting sustained high levels of demand for drug-driving testing to the Authority since 2020.

Forensic Services director Fiona Douglas, commenting on the findings, said the situation is “deeply regrettable”, adding: “I want to apologise and reassure the public and our partners that our laboratory staff are working tirelessly and remain committed to processing samples in a timely manner.”

Testing to date has focused on the highest risk cases, including those involving fatalities or collisions to ensure incidents that have caused the most harm are prioritised.

The 386 cases that have not been completed in time are primarily the lowest risk cases with no fatalities and only three cases recording any injury.

SPA said it will continue to work closely with Forensic Services, the Scottish Government, Police Scotland, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland (HMICS) to manage cases amid the continued high levels of demand and to develop a better model for these services.

At a meeting on Thursday, the SPA will consider a report on behalf of the justice system to discuss the challenges.

Efforts to address the continued demand so far include additional investment of more than £1 million from the Scottish Government to support outsourcing about 30% of cases to commercial forensic service providers and to enhance methods to help increase in-house capacity by 50%.

Forensic Services has received £681,000 of additional investment from the Scottish Government to build its capacity by outsourcing cases to accredited commercial forensic science providers, with a further £370,000 committed this year.

Testing and analysis on blood samples are carried out by the SPA’s Forensic Services, currently supported by accredited commercial forensic science providers.

Scottish Tory MSP Jamie Greene, in response to the figures, said: “Drug driving is an extremely dangerous crime so it is worrying that nearly 400 cases could not be prosecuted, in part due to a lack of police resources.

“Instead of tackling this problem, the SNP are breaking their manifesto promises by cutting the police’s budget over the next few years, which will no doubt lead to more cases going up in smoke in the future.

“The Scottish Conservatives pressured the SNP into taking action on drug-driving, but they now need to put their money where their mouth is and fund our police so they can keep our roads safe from drug drivers.”