News

Changes to criminal court business

Published: 11 Jan 2021 09:52

Justice Secretary responds to Lord President announcement.

Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf has responded to the Lord President’s decision to reduce the number of criminal trials as part of efforts to reduce the transmission of coronavirus (COVID-19).

The Justice Secretary said:

“I welcome the Lord President’s decisive action, which balances the interests of justice with the very serious public health challenges presented by the new variant of the coronavirus (COVID-19).

“I am acutely aware of the impact that trial delays have upon victims, witnesses and the accused, as well as on professionals working in the justice system.  Nonetheless, it is clear that all parts of society must step up our efforts to help safeguard health, protect the NHS and save lives.

“While the very concerning rates of infection, hospitalisation and deaths present us with arguably at least as challenging a position as we faced last March, today the justice system and in particular Scotland’s courts are logistically and operationally in a much better position than in the spring when a full shut down of criminal trials was needed.

“The dedication of Scottish Courts & Tribunals Service (SCTS) staff and management as well as the judiciary, Crown, defence community and wider justice partners allowed much court business to continue last year, including most civil and family cases online.  By establishing the UK’s first remote jury centres, from September we resumed the most serious High Court and then Sheriff solemn trials in a covid-secure way.

“The Lord President has made clear that all of Scotland’s courts remain open and that all criminal jury trials in the High Court and Sheriff Court will continue. Remote juries will continue to play an important part in supporting access to justice in weeks ahead. The reduction in the overall number of criminal trials taking place during lockdown by up to 75% will see fewer people moving to, from and within court buildings due to the significant reduction in summary trials – helping to further reduce the risks of virus transmission.

“I also welcome the fact that most non-criminal court business, on important civil and family cases, will continue. I am grateful to the SCTS, Crown Office and others for working rapidly through the issues over the weekend, and in doing so reflecting feedback from the legal profession and other court users. The Scottish Government will continue to work with justice organisations and victims representatives in the weeks and months ahead, to consider all options to respond to the inevitable increase in cases awaiting trial, as well as the wider impact of the on-going public health challenges across the justice system.”

Background

The Lord President’s announcement of changes to court business can be read on the SCTS website.

The impact of necessary COVID-19 public health restrictions, including disrupted court proceedings, is felt by jurisdictions across the world. The Scottish Government provided SCTS with £15 million to establish the UK’s first remote High Court and Sheriff jury centres as well as strengthening court technology. 

In response to the challenges faced by victims of crime through the pandemic, the Scottish Government increased the size of the Victims Fund, run by Victim Support Scotland to help those struggling to pay for a wide range of goods and services where they have no other access to funds.  An additional £5.75 million has also been provided to help support organisations, including Rape Crisis Scotland, Scottish Women’s Aid and ASSIST, respond to the increased demand from victims of domestic abuse since the start of the pandemic in March last year.

The Justice Secretary announced just before Christmas that funding of up to £20 million will be made available for solicitors in recognition of the impact of COVID-19 – with legal aid solicitors benefiting from a 10% across the board uplift in legal aid fees, a £9 million fund for grant support to help legal practitioners experiencing hardship as a result of the pandemic, and funding for up to 40 trainees in legal aid firms.

During the initial COVID lockdown the ability to take forward juryless trials in some cases was considered as a temporary measure however it became apparent that Parliament would not support that option. A new structure established under the authority of the collaborative Justice Board for Scotland is led by a Criminal Justice Board on which the chief executives of the key criminal justice organisations sit, to co-ordinate recovery activity, including in the criminal courts.

A number of programmes of work, each led by a senior member of one of the criminal justice organisations, have been established within that structure to address different aspects of the recovery process:

  • delivering the restart of jury trials (led by the Lord Justice Clerk)
  • Developing virtual summary procedural hearings and trials
  • Considering a new model for summary business, building on the Evidence and Procedure Review
  • Virtual custody courts
  • Strengthening community justice, as a diversion from prosecution in addition to alternatives to prison

Read further information, including the latest guidance for the public, and updates on the response of government and other agencies on the main coronavirus COVID-19 webpage. Health advice can be found at NHS Inform.