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September 3, 2010

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Scottish legal division’s watch brings conviction-rate success

Expeditious resolution of health and safety prosecution cases in Scotland appears to be bearing fruit, following fresh statistics from the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS).

A new and dedicated Health and Safety Division was established last year to deal with the investigation and prosecution of all cases reported to the Procurator Fiscal by the HSE. It was anticipated that the new approach would result in a greater concentration of expertise; increased specialist input at the start of an investigation; and enhanced liaison with stakeholders.

Statistics from the Division’s first 18 months of operations – from March 2009 to date – show that more than 20 cases were resolved without the need for trials by securing early guilty pleas. In total, there have been 27 prosecutions, and all have resulted in convictions with guilty pleas, avoiding the need for victims and witnesses to give evidence at trial.

This conviction rate is a significant improvement on previous years, prior to the Division being set up. In 2008/09, the conviction rate in Scotland was just 48 per cent, compared with 83 per cent in England and 75 per cent in Wales. The total amount of fines was £653,950, and the largest penalty was £96,000.

Since its launch, the Division has dealt with 125 investigations and received 89 prosecution reports.

The solicitor general, Frank Mulholland QC praised the work of the Division and said its success in its first year proved that specialist prosecutors are making a real difference to victims and their families.

He added: “By building on our existing expertise and through enhanced working relationships with the HSE and other enforcing authorities, the Division has been more able to deal with the complex issues that can arise in health and safety investigations.

“This approach, using dedicated specialist prosecutors, has also enabled us to resolve a number of cases at an early stage, bringing benefits to victims and witnesses alike.”

Commenting on how the Division operates, a Crown Office spokesperson told SHP: “Specialist prosecutors in the Health and Safety Division work with HSE inspectors on a daily basis in order to progress the prosecution of health and safety cases in the most effective manner.”

The Division has 16 staff and three dedicated units, based in Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow. The team is led by Elaine Taylor, who elaborated on how the service liaises with victims and families during the legal process: “The Division’s dedicated member of staff from our Victim Information and Advice (VIA) service plays a vital role in working with the team to communicate with victims and families during what are often lengthy investigations and inquiries.

“She keeps families informed and updated about the progress of the cases, and also assists by providing information about support resources covering a wide range of needs.”

Describing the benefits of the new approach, Taylor added: “The early resolution of these cases by way of plea has spared families and victims from what can be a very distressing and traumatic experience of reliving these events through lengthy court process. It has also freed up the courts’ time and reduced costs involved in potentially lengthy trial proceedings.”

Praise for the team’s work was also forthcoming from the HSE and STUC, whose assistant secretary, Ian Tasker, said: “The STUC welcomed the formation of the new Division as we feel it is vitally important that health and safety cases are prosecuted effectively and quickly. One of the positive messages we are picking up from bereaved families is the improved communication between families and prosecutors – one of the main complaints families raised with us before the Division was formed.”

Dr Paul Stollard, HSE director, Scotland, added: “The specialist Health and Safety Division at COPFS should be pleased with the results achieved in its first year. We have valued being able to work with it to ensure that those responsible for death and injury in Scotland’s workplaces have been held to account, and we look forward to further building on the relationship between HSE and the COPFS Health and Safety Division over the coming year.”

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