The Bowen review into sheriff and jury procedure

In April 2009 the Scottish government announced a review into sheriff and jury practice and procedure. The review was to

"review the arrangements for sheriff and jury business, including the procedures and practices of the Sheriff Court and the rules of criminal procedure as they apply to solemn business in the Sheriff Court; and to make recommendations for the more efficient and cost-effective operation of sheriff and jury business in promoting the interests of justice and reducing inconvenience and stress to the victims and witnesses involved in cases."

The review followed previous reviews into summary criminal procedure (by Sheriff Principal mcInnes) and High Court of Justiciary procedure (by Lord Bonomy). The review was carried out by Sheriff Principal Bowen – and he submitted his report to Scottish ministers in June 2010.

The report is substantial and contains a number of recommendations.

The main recommendations are found in chapters 6 and 7 of the report and include the following:

  • To only cite witnesses to give evidence in a case once it is known the case will proceed to trial – this will result in significant savings, both in reducing inconvenience to witnesses and in the cost of citing witnesses
  • To introduce a 'new compulsory business meeting' to bring together the Crown and defence to discuss cases at an early stage of proceedings- this will result in parties being better prepared for court appearances and produce a higher number of pleas of guilty at an early stage in proceedings
  • To enhance the current statutory provisions and require the Crown and defence at First Diet to be able to inform the court about their preparation of the case and allow the court to resolve any issues to be addressed at that stage- this will mean that First Diets should work as intended as a clearing house for cases going to trial
  • To allow a longer period between the indictment of the case and the first diet – this will allow for outstanding issues to be resolved before First Diet, thereby minimising the need for continued First Diets
  • To accommodate these procedural changes, it is proposed that the statutory time limits for commencing trials in sheriff and jury cases be extended for custody cases to 140 days, this is in line with the High Court time limit
  • The report also proposes that legal aid provision for sheriff and jury cases should be reviewed so that it supports early resolution of cases, as it does in the High Court and in summary justice.

Additional recommendations include recommending the establishment of a working party to consider the  wider use of TV links between courts and prisons (ch 9);  sheriffs making greater use of existing powers relating to those who do not attend for jury duty without excuse (ch 8); and continuity of sheriffs involved in individual cases.

Launching his report Sheriff Principal Bowen said,

"In carrying out this Review I have sought to identify where there is waste in the system and to come up with proposals to eliminate it. My proposals are designed to create procedures which allow for straightforward cases to be disposed of quickly whilst retaining flexibility to accommodate more complex cases. By introducing a compulsory business meeting and firmer enquiries by sheriffs at First Diet, I anticipate that cases being continued to further court appearances will become the exception, rather than the norm. These changes will off course, require a change in mindset by all parties. I have however been encouraged in my discussions with all those involved in sheriff and jury procedure during the course of this review, of their willingness to contribute views, suggest changes and indicate a willingness to participate in improving this field of criminal business. The reforms to High Court and summary justice over recent years provide good examples of how changes to procedures and practices can lead to criminal business being managed more efficiently . I have no doubt that by increasing the efficiency of sheriff and jury procedures public confidence in the criminal justice system will improve."