Scotland proposes more virtual courts

Increased use of technology is among ‘basket of measures’ considered to clear case backlog

Credit: Steve Parsons/PA

Members of Scottish Parliament have called for a “basket of measures” to tackle the backlog of trials in Scotland’s courts, including more virtual courts and other increased use of technology.

Existing backlogs in both criminal and civil trials have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, with worst-case scenarios suggesting it could take eight to ten years just to get back to pre-Covid levels of delay if nothing is done to speed up the process.

Jury trials restarted in August with digital technology enabling juries to follow from separate courtrooms.

This will be expanded from this week, with cinemas being used as additional remote courtroom space.

Meanwhile, many civil cases and tribunals, and some summary criminal trials, have moved online.

But following an inquiry, Holyrood’s Justice Committee has outlined a range of further actions it wants to see considered to reduce the backlog in cases.

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These include additional remote jury centres, remote jury empanelling, further use of digital technology and an exploration of additional alternative venues for virtual courts – providing that the needs of people with disabilities and the vulnerable, who may find it harder to participate in a remote trial, are considered.

The committee also calls for the option of “further, limited” discounting of sentences for an early guilty plea to be explored as a means of reducing the backlog.

In addition, MSPs want consideration to be given to the feasibility of extended court sittings on a temporary basis.

They acknowledge this is “problematic” and will require extra investment in, for example, temporary sheriffs, additional court staff and prosecutors, as well as in budgets for the legal profession and increased legal aid, which the Scottish Government would have to budget for.

They also recommend this should not be undertaken without full consultation of all the necessary parties likely to be affected.

According to the committee, all the measures suggested may be “unpalatable, but necessary”, but some options, such as trials without juries, must remain “beyond the pale”.

“Such a step is, in our opinion, too significant a change to the fundamental principles of our criminal justice system to be made at short notice,” the committee said. “Furthermore, there is insufficient time remaining in this parliamentary session to properly scrutinise any such proposal were one to be made.”

Following its report, the committee wants to see a response from the justice secretary “without undue delay” and a roundtable of relevant groups such as MSPs, lawyers and the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service brought together to discuss the proposals.

Justice Committee convener Adam Tomkins said: “The scale of the challenge faced by our courts is not to be underestimated. Current delays are not acceptable for the victims, witnesses or the accused of crimes.  While that point may not be controversial, we need to ensure changes to improve the situation, whether long or short term, have the widest possible backing.

“To that end, we want the Scottish Government to convene a meeting of all interested parties to agree a way forward. Time is of the essence. By following the collaborative approach taken in the early days of the pandemic, and by being open and transparent with thinking, we can have a grown-up conversation about the pros and cons of the options available.

“The committee hopes that this would help those responsible for the day-to-day operation of the courts and those responsible for the system to coalesce around a common way forward and agree upon necessary actions.”


Sam Trendall

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