Criminal trials during COVID-19 outbreak

Discussion paper published ahead of talks and update to Parliament.

Potential options for progressing serious criminal cases during the coronavirus (COVID-19) emergency and its aftermath have been published by the Scottish Government.

These options form part of a discussion paper which will inform an upcoming meeting between Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf and key stakeholders on the most effective approach to manage the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on the criminal justice system.

Key justice stakeholders, including representatives of political parties, have been invited to a first virtual roundtable discussion on Wednesday 15 April to discuss the ongoing suspension of judge and jury court trials. The suspension was put in place to meet social distancing guidance and safeguard public health.

The new paper outlines the potential scale of the issues faced as a result of the necessary suspension, and outlines a number of different options which may provide solutions to these unprecedented circumstances. These include:

  • smaller numbers of jurors
  • larger non-court locations to facilitate social distancing
  • social distancing measures within existing Court facilities
  • remote video juries linked to the Court
  • testing of jurors and other Court attendees for COVID-19
  • measures to enable faster progression of jury trials to address backlog following easing of public health restrictions
  • judge only trials (and potential safeguards)
  • adjusting the sentencing powers of Sheriff Courts (summary and solemn)
  • maintaining the status quo i.e. do not make any temporary changes

While the proposal to temporarily change the trial by jury system is still included among these options, in light of the concerns raised regarding such a change it is not the Scottish Government’s favoured option to address this emergency situation.

The Justice Secretary plans to deliver a ministerial statement on the issue when Parliament returns after the Easter break.

Mr Yousaf said:

“Scotland’s justice system, as with all public services, has responded quickly to the COVID-19 outbreak, to support service users and employees to comply with the essential public health measures that will reduce social interaction and the spread of this dangerous virus.

“We and our partner agencies are committed to continuing fair and effective justice and moves have already been made to enhance digital capability across the justice system while scaling back activity where appropriate.  

“However, the suspension of jury trials during the current ‘lockdown’ period, in order to comply with social distancing guidance, will result in a significant backlog of criminal trials which, clearly, negatively impacts victims, witnesses and accused people, as well as potentially public faith in their justice system.

“While the emergency Coronavirus (Scotland) Act allows time limits for some criminal proceedings to be extended, it does not resolve the inability for the most serious cases to proceed without being able to use juries. I committed to consider any practical or legislative solutions to this issue and am grateful to those stakeholders for their suggestions.

“Following intensive work by Government, the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service and the Crown Office, our discussion paper details a range of potential temporary options and while changing the trial by jury system is still included it is not our favoured option. Each has clear challenges and I will consider them in detail, while having talks with key justice partners, including representatives of the legal profession, victims organisations, political parties and human rights experts this week.

“I intend to update Parliament as soon as possible after recess on how these discussions are progressing and any planned next steps.”


Coronavirus (COVID-19) options for progressing the most serious criminal cases

Read further information and the latest guidance and updates on the response of government and other agencies on the coronavirus COVID-19 webpage.

Health advice can be found at NHS Inform.


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