Judge: “Backlog means prisoners walking free”

Judge Douglas Cusine claims criminals are walking free due to backlog in courts

A JUDGE has warned that criminals could be walking free because of a chronic backlog in the justice system.

Sheriff Douglas Cusine said Scottish courts are clogged with racism and domestic abuse cases that have little or no chance of success.

The retired judge said the resulting delays mean cases can take 18 months or longer to reach court – by which time witnesses have forgotten crucial evidence.

Sheriff Cusine, who retired in September, hit out: “There is undoubtedly a problem. Witnesses can’t remember much, if they actually bother to turn up.

“When there are long delays, a witness may not remember even the salient facts that are required. The chances are that the Crown will not get a conviction. It could be that people who are guilty are walking free.”

The 65-year-old lawman called on the government to make sure trials took place with three to four months of the crime.

Sheriff Cusine, who was on the bench inAberdeenfor more than a decade, said: “One of the problems is Crown policy in relation to cases with a racial element or domestic-violence element.

“The Crown is bringing some cases to court whether there’s sufficient evidence or not. If the courts are clogged up with cases like that, then other things could get put on the back burner.”

He added: “No right-thinking individual would in any way condone domestic violence but any case which comes to court must have sufficient evidence for conviction.”

The sheriff, speaking to his local newspaper, said the problem wasn’t just with the court system.

“The problem doesn’t lie with the court, it lies with the people who bring the cases to court, namely the fiscals,” he said.

“They have to look very carefully at the sort of things they are bringing before the court.

He called for an end to the repeated delays that affect summary trials in the Sheriff courts, where a judge sits without a jury.

“What we need, as far as summary trials is concerned, is to be as certain as we possibly can that they will go ahead on the day they first call for trial,” he said.

“If it is known the trial is going to go ahead, that’s when you get guilty pleas, alternatively, the trial gets going. There is no reason why a case can’t call in the morning and go ahead in the afternoon, providing you have witnesses.”

Sheriff Cusine called on the government to take action.

He said: “There should be obligation on the Government to ensure trials take place within three to four months of an offence taking place.”

But a Crown Office spokesman insisted Scotland had some of the shortest timescales for bringing prosecutions.

“Once a case is before the court, it is under the management of the court,” he said.

“There are many reasons why the conclusion of cases can be delayed, such as missing witnesses, lack of court time and further inquiries by the defence. The prosecution service will continue to overcome such challenges and endeavour to develop new means to bring cases to a speedy conclusion.”

The spokesman rejected claims that cases were being brought to court without sufficient evidence. “We do not apologise for taking a zero-tolerance approach to domestic violence and racially motivated crime,” he said.