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Police Scotland faces the greatest challenge of its ten-year existence

After a challenging year for Scottish justice, 2024 could be even worse for some in the sector

This is my latest Scotsman column published 26th December, 2023.

It’s the end of another year,  and time for the annual report card. How have the various components of our justice system performed over the year, and what are the prospects for 2024? 

Starting at the top, it’s been a mixed year for The Crown Office, Procurator Fiscals Service. The court backlogs have been robustly challenged with some success while the prosecution of historic cases continues its amazing run of success. The recent convictions for the 1996 murder of 14-year-old Caroline Glachan caps a  brilliant period that has also seen the 1976 Murders of Renee and Andrew MacRae and the 1978 murder of Brenda Page finally solved.

Make no mistake, these are outstanding results and full credit must go to The Crown Office and advocate depute Alex Prentice KC and his team of prosecutors, police and scientists. Their approach has been both bold and meticulous, let’s hope they can keep up the momentum in 2024. 

Less edifying has been the bizarre case of American fugitive Nicolas Rossi. Somehow this imposter managed to run rings round our justice system by simply denying his identity even when it had been established beyond doubt. For some reason his barefaced lies seemed to flummox our court system, leading to multiple time wasting court appearances, with Rossi in a wheelchair and costume dress playing to the crowd. Once this gentleman has left our shores I sincerely hope there is a full debrief in The Crown Office. Our justice system must be proofed against chancers like Rossi in the future. 

And it’s been a tough year for our lord advocate. Dorothy Bain KC has too often found her herself on the losing end of Government cases, the latest of which was over the ill starred Gender Recognition Reform Bill. No lord advocate relishes losing cases at The Appeal Court, and I doubt the redoubtable Ms Bain has enjoyed the experience. 

But coming down the tracks in '24 is a greater challenge to our justice system.  The proposal to insert a Government element into the control of our judiciary threatens the very independence of our legal system. This move must be resisted. The absolute independence of our judges protects us all. 

Our prison service has had another torrid year in '23.  A welcome reduction in prisoner numbers during the Covid lockdowns has now been thrown into reverse, our crumbling prison estate adding to the agony. And after all the years of debate there is still a woeful lack of investment in alternatives to custody and rehabilitation services.

For Police Scotland this has been a year of transition. A new chief constable takes over a force with a fine record for solving serious crime and managing major events, but which has been chronically underfunded and is now creaking at the seams. With police numbers falling and recruiting suspended , the leadership of Police Scotland face the greatest challenge the force has faced in its ten year existence. Trimming the edges will no longer suffice. Only a wholesale service redesign will suffice, there are no easy choices. 

And finally, the new year will see the long delayed retirement of an important figure in policing. senior deputy chief Fiona Taylor has been a mainstay of Policing in Scotland over the last decade. Never seeking the limelight, her vast experience on both sides of the border has won her respect and helped steer Police Scotland on the right course. She will be sorely missed, but her active mentoring of the many up and coming young women senior officers in the force will ensure her legacy is secure.

Good new year to all the readers of this column and thanks to those who have offered feedback in the year past. 

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