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Courts to cut number of criminal trials during coronavirus outbreak

The Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service said it is taking measures to maintain confidence in justice and protect the health of those involved.

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Courts have announced changes to how they operate amid the coronavirus (Jane Barlow/PA)

Courts have announced changes to how they operate amid the coronavirus (Jane Barlow/PA)

Courts have announced changes to how they operate amid the coronavirus (Jane Barlow/PA)

The number of all types of criminal trials will be cut as part of measures to maintain the justice system during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service (SCTS) said Covid-19 is now having a significant impact on the Scottish justice system and this will accelerate in the coming weeks and months.

On Monday, the SCTS said no new criminal jury trials will be started or new juries empanelled until further notice.

It has now announced there will be a “significant reduction” in summary criminal trials, those for less serious offences, which take place before a sheriff with no jury.

The measures announced today aim to ensure that the public can maintain the trust and confidence that justice continuesThe Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service

Courts will focus on trials in which the accused is in custody and “by exception” a small number of non-custody trials when witnesses are available, with these likely to be limited to cases relating to domestic abuse, sexual offending and violence.

The court service said it is also exploring ways to increase the opportunities to pre-record evidence, enable evidence to be given from other locations and generally expand the use of technology.

In a statement, the SCTS said: “The measures announced today aim to ensure that the public can maintain the trust and confidence that justice continues, that we protect the health of those using our courts and tribunals and that essential cases are dealt with to maintain public safety.

“The lord president and lord advocate have agreed to a programme of changes to criminal court business, which together with changes to civil court business, tribunal hearings and the work of the Office of the Public Guardian, will provide a sustainable response during this outbreak.

“The arrangements will support the public heath response by reducing the requirement for physical attendance at courts or hearings whenever possible, reducing the risk to staff, judiciary and all court users.

“These arrangements prioritise essential or exceptional business and have been made with intent to support a managed recovery when that is possible.”

Jury trials that are under way will continue to their conclusion when possible.

Jurors who have been cited for future trials have been asked not to come to court and the SCTS said it does not expect to start citing jurors again until June.

Criminal appeals will continue as normal, as will appeals at the Court of Session, Scotland’s highest civil court.

Civil business without witnesses will continue as normal where possible at both the Court of Session and Sheriff Courts and where the parties involved agree, hearings may proceed on written submissions or via telephone or video conferencing.

The SCTS said all non-critical work across the tribunals that it support is now being stopped, with tribunals moving to postpone scheduled hearings.

It said that where these are time-critical, such as some hearings of the Mental Health Tribunal, they are being changed to telephone hearings to reduce travel and protect the parties involved.

The Office of the Public Guardian will be prioritising work, particularly powers of attorney and guardianship orders, to ensure that essential services are maintained as far as possible.

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James Wolffe QC said he is focused on public safety (Andrew Milligan/PA)

Lord Advocate James Wolffe QC said: “My firm commitment, now as always, is to keeping the public safe from harm and maintaining the rule of law.

“Scotland’s prosecution service is working with justice partners on a system-wide response to the challenges of the coming months which are unprecedented in modern times.

“That response will be focused on public safety and on maintaining the fair and effective administration of justice within the constraints of health guidance.”

He added: “The police and prosecutors will continue to respond effectively, robustly and fairly to criminality at all levels.

“We are working with the courts and with the Scottish Government on a range of measures which will respond to the demands posed by the present circumstances.”

Chief Constable Iain Livingstone said: “The Police Service of Scotland is working closely with the Crown Office and the wider justice system to protect people from crime and the threat of Covid-19, while also upholding people’s human rights.

“These measures allow us to carry out our duties in the most effective way during this critical period.

“I am confident that by working together we can respond to this outbreak and keep our communities safe.”

PA