No silver bullet to clear courts backlog, Committee warns

28.09.2020

MSPs on Holyrood’s Justice Committee have called for a ‘basket of measures’ to help clear the backlog in Scotland’s courts exacerbated by the Coronavirus pandemic, acknowledging that some of these may be unpalatable, but necessary.

Members of the Committee have been looking at the impact of Covid-19 on the justice system, with delays caused by the halting of most criminal court business during the height of the pandemic one of the most concerning issues.

The Committee heard that while delays to criminal cases was a problem before the pandemic, just to get back to that level of backlog would take eight to 10 years if nothing is done to increase or speed up court business.

While the Scottish Government and the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service have taken forward some proposals, such as setting up ‘remote jury centres’ in cinemas to allow juries to socially distance while participating in trials, the Committee is calling for:

- The Scottish Government to urgently convene a round-table discussion with representatives of affected groups to discuss and agree a way forward for both criminal and civil systems;

- For these discussions to include proposals for more remote jury centres; remote jury empanelling; and more digital technology – for example recording evidence from specialist witnesses;

- For consideration to be given in these discussions to sentence discounts for early pleas; and, in the short-term, extended court sitting hours;

- The Cabinet Secretary for Justice to ensure that sufficient funding is in place to resource and staff any changes without adverse or unforeseen consequences.

This would follow on from a previous roundtable held in April 2020 which agreed interim measures for court business.

At that meeting, some options previously considered, such as trials without juries, were discounted by those present. This is a conclusion the Committee agreed is beyond the pale, as it would be too fundamental a change to make to Scotland’s justice system.

Speaking as the report was launched, Justice Committee Convener, Adam Tomkins MSP, 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.”

Professor Tomkins added:

“Although the problems are at their worst in the criminal courts, there is still a mismatch in our civil courts, which are largely functioning, and other services linked to them, such as family contact centres, which are at best partially open.”

Background

The full report from the Justice Committee is available to download from the end of this email.

Proposals suggested by the Scottish Government at its previous roundtable with stakeholders in April 2020 were:

- Reduce the number of jurors required from the current 15.

- Hold jury trials in larger non-court locations to facilitate social distancing.

- Retain the current court facilities but enable social distancing during jury trials.

- Have jurors in remote locations video-linked to court (remote jury centres).

- Set up a testing programme for jurors and other court attendees for Covid-19.

- Deal with the backlog with faster progress of jury trials at the end of the current health restrictions.

- Remove the right to jury trial and move to judge-only trial.

- Adjust the sentencing power of Sheriff Courts (summary and solemn) so that more trials were heard without juries.

- Retain the status quo.

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