Responding to the publication of the Scottish Parliament Justice Committee's recommendations on reopening the courts, following their closure as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, Amanda Millar, President of the Law Society of Scotland, said: “We welcome the recommendations in the Justice Committee’s report on reopening Scotland’s courts and tribunals system.
“With the Covid-19 pandemic continuing to affect civil and criminal courts, we support the need for urgent full and frank discussions with all interested parties on how best to address the current backlog. A backlog existed prior to the Covid-19 pandemic and has been exacerbated by the current situation.
“Clarity is essential to ensuring we can develop effective solutions and we emphasise our calls to Scottish Government to set out a clear and comprehensive plan of how the justice system will work during and after the pandemic, That means outlining the changes which are being proposed, the relevant timescales and the impact such changes will make to the backlog and where relevant, trialling or piloting solutions.
“The justice system is complex and care is needed to avoid making fundamental changes which could create a different crisis in the future. It will be important to trial new technology-based solutions to ensure they work effectively. This needs to be combined with the greater use of obtaining evidence on commission, allowing the public being able to hear trials remotely, pre-recorded evidence and remote links at police stations for witnesses to give evidence.
“We welcome the recommendation not to proceed at this time with judge-only trials. Now is not the time to make radical solutions but to work on a range of solutions. The success of the innovative approach of using cinema complexes as remote jury centres for High Court trials, which was among our suggestions at an early stage of lockdown, will help to pave the way for extending the use of additional external Scottish Government buildings, other court estate, and even university accommodation such as moot court rooms and/or the currently underused hotel and conference facilities.
“Trialling and adopting other innovative solutions such as the pilot project in Hamilton on summary cases and ensuring there are sufficient resources will also be necessary to tackle the backlog.
“We continue to have concerns with regard to emerging evidence about the unsuitability of remote hearings for a number of a participants, particularly those who are vulnerable. The needs of this group must be at the foreground of policy consideration in adopting solutions. The backlog affects all involved within the justice system and there is a need to balance the different interests of those involved, including the impact of delays on victims and witnesses. The accused too have been facing lengthy periods on remand in custody which has challenges for them with isolation and restrictions imposed due to Covid-19.
“The Justice Committee report recognises that extra investment across the whole of the justice sector will be required in addressing the backlog, including temporary sheriffs, additional court staff/prosecutors, legal aid budgets and support for the legal profession who have continued to provide essential advice and representation on behalf of their clients during this challenging period. It will also be vital to ensure there can be full consultation on any measures proposed.
“We look forward to taking a proactive, solutions-based approach as we work with our justice partners on dealing with the backlog in the courts and the other challenges presented by pandemic.”