ALARM has been raised over Scotland’s ‘soft-touch’ justice as nearly a third of all fiscal fines handed out by prosecutors that were rejected resulted in no further action.
In June, Deputy First Minister John Swinney told the Scottish Parliament that refusal to pay them “is treated as a request by the alleged offender to be prosecuted for the offence”.
But according to new figures in the past three years, at least 30% of rejected offers of fiscal fines have resulted in no further action.
In 2018-19, 39% (189 out of 488) of those who refused to pay a fiscal fine had no further action taken against them and in 2019-20 it was around 40 per cent (180 of 449).
In 2020-21, where the vast majority of cases are still marked as “ongoing” due to backlogged courts hit by the Covid pandemic it was 10% (42 out of 407). It is estimated that more than 80 per cent of rejected fiscal fine offers from the year are still ongoing.
Fiscal fines can be imposed on people charged with minor offences – usually in amounts smaller than £300 – but do not constitute an admission of guilt and are not recorded as a conviction.
However, the accused can reject the offer of a fine in favour of prosecution.
The latest figures seen by the Herald have been condemned.
Scottish Conservatives’ shadow minister for community justice, Russell Findlay MSP, said: “These shocking new figures show the reality of the SNP’s soft-touch justice system, which routinely betrays crime victims.
“More than 1 in 3 accused criminals who refuse to pay a fine are facing no further action.
“This exposes the sham of John Swinney’s claim, made to the Scottish Parliament, that rejection of these fines is likely to result in prosecution.
“The message this sends is clear – alleged offenders know they can break the law with impunity as they won’t pay the price under this SNP Government.
“The Scottish Conservatives have put forward detailed proposals for a Victims Law that would stack the system in favour of victims, not criminals “As we build Scotland’s real alternative to the SNP, we will take that Victims Law forward and make the necessary improvements to justice in this country that the SNP have neglected for 14 years and counting.”
Last year it emerged the number of Scots offenders avoiding court after their case was passed to social workers was on the rise.
The number of “diversions from prosecution” rose by seven per cent to over 1,800 over a year.
One in three criminals were also failing to complete community payback orders, with only 68 percent of offenders finishing them.
That is despite the Scottish Government insisting that about 8 million hours of unpaid work had been carried out by people serving community sentences since 2011.
The Scottish Government had insisted this approach works better than “ineffective” short prison sentences.
Unpaid work by offenders serving community payback orders (CPOs) includes maintaining pavements, clearing drains, making furniture for foodbanks and schools, gardening and painting.
The number of people given supervised bail rather than being remanded in custody also increased 26% between 2017-18 and 2018-19, the figures also show.
In January, it was revealed that criminals sentenced to do unpaid community work could see their hours cut by a third under plans announced by the Scottish Government.
The reduction was required to deal with what was called an “unavoidable” backlog in the system due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Council areas placed under level four restrictions last year were told by health chiefs to suspend all planned community work parties as they would be unsafe.
But ministers planned to cut the unpaid work element imposed in existing community payback orders by 35% – with the exception of those imposed for domestic abuse, sexual offences, or stalking.
The move was condemned by the chief executive of Victim Support Scotland Kate Wallace who said: “We understand that exceptions have been put in place for orders imposed for domestic abuse, sexual offences and stalking. However, we believe this still leaves many people impacted by crime with uncertainty, which can be triggering and traumatic.
“Furthermore, we are aware without the resources in place to monitor and ensure Community Payback Orders are carried out effectively, many existing hours remain unfulfilled. This does not invoke public trust or confidence.”
Mr Swinney said last month that a refusal to pay a fiscal fine should result in the offender being prosecuted for the offence.
He said: “Safeguards are built into the operation of fiscal fines, which are not mandatory penalties. Anyone who is offered a fiscal fine as an alternative to prosecution may refuse such an offer by giving notice to the court to that effect. In such an event, the refusal is treated as a request by the alleged offender to be prosecuted for the offence.
“The measure allows, where appropriate, for a greater range of cases to be dealt with outwith the court setting. It remains an important part of the on-going recovery of our justice system from the impacts of coronavirus.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Use of non-court disposals for less serious offending is a long-standing and recognised part of the Scottish justice system which the Scottish Parliament has legislated to provide powers for the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service to use. Decisions in individual cases as to whether to offer a non-court disposal and the action taken if such an offer is not taken up is entirely a matter for the independent Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service.”
A Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service spokesman said “Procurators Fiscal deal with every case on its own individual facts and circumstances.
“Effective and appropriate prosecutorial action is not limited to court proceedings and an offer of an alternative to prosecution is an effective response to certain types of minor crimes.
“The Procurator Fiscal will decide what is the most appropriate action to take, whether criminal proceedings or an offer of an alternative to prosecution.
“Where an alternative to prosecution is not accepted, the Procurator Fiscal will decide whether further prosecutorial action is appropriate in the individual case circumstances.”