Coronavirus (COVID-19): Cabinet Secretary for Justice statement, 17 June 2020

Statement to Parliament given by the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Humza Yousaf MSP, on the response of Scotland’s justice system to COVID-19, on Wednesday 17 June.

Presiding Officer, today I wish to take the opportunity to update this Parliament on how Scotland’s justice system has responded to the challenges posed by COVID-19 and the next steps which will have to be taken to allow the system to recover and renew.

Reflecting on how challenging the past few months have been, and the immense pressure everyone working in the justice sector is under, I would like to start by paying tribute to the adaptability, resilience and hard work of everyone across all justice agencies and those on the front-line for their response to the COVID-19 outbreak. 

The dedication and commitment of those who make the wheels of justice turn have enabled Scotland’s justice system to respond quickly to the significant challenges posed by the COVID-19 outbreak.

I would also like to thank the people of Scotland for largely adhering to the measures that are in place to keep everyone safe, but COVID has not gone away and I urge everyone to continue to comply with the essential public health measures to help us curb, control and curtail the spread of this dangerous virus.

Presiding Officer, we are under no illusions when we consider the major impact that COVID has had on the justice system.  I want to highlight to members the key role of the national Justice Board to drive forward our recovery efforts as we move through each key phase, as part of our 4-phase lockdown exit ‘roadmap’. 

The Justice Board, engaging with victims, legal professionals and others, is overseeing the progress of activity to ensure the recovery, renewal and transformation of the Justice system as we progress through and beyond our COVID-19 route map.  This recognises that significant progress was made very quickly in response to the Covid-19 outbreak, and that should be regarded as the foundations for the work still to be done. 

The Lord Advocate and I co-chaired a meeting of the Victim’s Taskforce last week where we heard from members the importance they attach to being involved in the development of these changes. There were also some very clear anxieties expressed from victims’ organisations which we are determined to act upon.

The approach recognises that transformation across the system has been accelerated to enable essential business to be conducted in the early stages of the outbreak; that substantial work is on-going to re-establish service provision, obviously in line with public health guidance. And that further extensive transformation will be required to enable the system to operate whilst living with the implications of COVID-19 going forward.

I will now turn to provide some detail of what is happening across the various justice organisations.

The police have been on the front line in this emergency, supporting one of the most effective tools we have to control the spread of the virus, namely physical distancing.

There have been very good levels of compliance, because almost every individual knows that this is a collective endeavour.

And we know that the public is very supportive of the way in which the police have dealt with the situation.  We know that from surveys of the Scottish Police Authority, Police Scotland’s own surveys, and from the work of the Independent Advisory Group on the policing of the COVID-19 regulations, which is chaired by John Scott QC.  We know that they have come back with high levels of confidence in policing. In fact the very existence of this group is a symbol of the openness and accountability of our police service in Scotland.

The recent policing of the Black Lives Matter events shows this approach is the right one.  Here was a clear balance between the need for sensitive policing and the imperative to keep people safe.

Both I and the Chief Constable made plain our views that people should not attend these events and that people should find other ways of protesting. But, given that a significant number of people did gather in different parts of Scotland, the approach of Police Scotland reflected that balance very well.

I also believe that the last few months have confirmed beyond all doubt that Scotland is most effectively policed by a single, national service that is able to extend that common-sense and empathetic approach across the whole country.

The fundamental principles of policing will not change over the coming months, although I would judge that the specific role of the police will inevitably change as we move further out of lockdown, with more of a focus on business as usual and core policing duties.

Considering the shameful scenes of disorder Police Scotland had to deal with on Sunday, and the separate, horrific incident which left two officers serious injured, I hope everyone across this Chamber renews their appreciation of the incredible job our police officers are doing to keep us safe.

Turning to court business, in a short number of weeks, Scotland’s Courts have resumed many of their services.

They have enabled virtual courts to be held in the Court of Session Inner House, and High Court criminal appeals and remote hearings to be held in the Outer House.  Sheriff Courts and Mental Health Tribunals have also had remote hearings take place. 

New digital approaches have been introduced, allowing cases to be progressed across the Sheriff Civil courts and the All Scotland Personal Injury Court, and commissary proceedings have been restarted through remote working.

Protocols have been introduced in the courts to ensure physical distancing is maintained where attendance is required, with practice notes in place allowing remote representation to minimise attendance in court by solicitors and Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service staff.

Alongside the hard work and ingenuity of Scottish Court and Tribunal Service staff and of the legal profession, many of these innovative approaches could only be utilised because of the new legislative provisions that we brought forward. So it is also to Parliament’s credit that such measures could be put in place so quickly.

Going forward, the SCTS has announced a 3-stage approach to restarting civil business, which prioritises urgent business and tackling the backlog.

There are 15 hub sheriff courts operating, which are dealing with custodies and have been helping to reduce court sitting times. All sheriff courts reopened on 2 June and have restarted processing local business this week.

Last week virtual summary trials were commenced in two locations, supporting future arrangements for summary trials to be conducted remotely.

The Restarting Solemn Trials Working Group, led by the Lord Justice Clerk Lady Dorrian, has made swift progress in identifying the steps needed for jury trials to commence in Edinburgh and Glasgow in July. Although this will involve very small numbers at first, the aim is to establish a sustainable approach that can allow as many trials as possible to progress, consistent with a fair justice system while protecting the health of all those involved.

In terms of the prison service, SPS has taken rapid and responsive action to ensure that physical distancing and public health protocols have been met, putting in place a robust plan to manage COVID-19 and to prevent its spread.

I would hope members across the Chamber would join with me in thanking our hard-working prison officers and staff for the incredible job they have done to prevent a COVID-19 crisis in our prisons.

At its peak we had approximately 100 individuals self-isolating with a number of positive cases confirmed. As of last night there were no confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 in Scottish prisons and just 9 individuals self-isolating across 5 establishments. This is a significant achievement by our prison and health staff.

As we see lockdown measures start to ease in our wider communities, the prison service is developing a phased approach to the easing of restrictions across the estate, while ensuring operational stability and safety and wellbeing of everyone in our prisons.

In terms of family contact we continue to recognise the impact of the restrictions in our prisons and the impact that has particularly on families.

Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons has implemented a remote monitoring framework and inspection liaison visits to ensure oversight and monitoring of conditions in prisons as a result of COVID-19.

But as I say, we recognise very much the effect and the impact that the suspension of visits has had on families and the prison service has been working hard to introduce alternatives for maintaining vital family contact.

Following the laying of amended prison rules in Parliament earlier this week, the first virtual visits by family and friends took place yesterday for some of those in custody at Polmont, Cornton Vale and Shotts. We anticipate that virtual visits will be available in all of our prisons by the end of the month.

In addition, restricted mobile phones are being introduced in Cornton Vale and Polmont this week and then across the entire estate – with the exception of HMP Kilmarnock, which is implementing an in-cell landline solution – over the next month or so as another way of enabling vital family contact during this difficult time.

The prison service will ensure implementation of virtual visits and mobile phones is done in a way which is practical and safe – for those in custody, their families, and those in the wider community.

The prison population – which, as members will be aware, was of particular concern before the pandemic – has reduced by around 15% since March to under 7,000, largely as a result of the downturn in court business, but obviously aided by the early release arrangements put in place as well.

This was completed, on schedule, on 1 June and saw a total of 348 prisoners released early.

However, in light of the continuing arrival of new remand prisoners, and the gradual reopening of the courts, we must continue to monitor the prison population and ensure that its reduction is not short-lived. 

The key aims of the early release process – to take necessary and proportionate action to support the safe operation of prisons and to protect the health and wellbeing of those who live and work in them – remain very much a priority.

As I conclude shortly Presiding Officer, I want to make the important reference to the fact that all of us have at the forefront of our minds, in particular victims and survivors of domestic abuse.

And I want to reassure victims of all crime that action will continue to be taken against perpetrators of crime and they will continue to be brought to justice.

I think it is worth noting from the conversations I have with the Chief Constable multiple times a week that I am reassured by Police Scotland’s commitment, as well as our support organisations’ commitment, to do what we can to support those who are in a difficult position at home in relation to domestic abuse. 

We also have a focus on cyber-crime, as we know that serious organised crime groups have been looking to exploit the current COVID-19 pandemic, and we are making sure we put our efforts in that regard.

In conclusion, Presiding Officer, I’d like to assure this Parliament and the people of Scotland that the justice system is continuing to operate and support our citizens through this time and as we navigate our way out of lockdown.

I think members will no doubt join me in paying tribute to the hard work undertaken by all in the justice system in supporting a safe, just and resilient Scotland.

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