Permanent changes to the justice system and other public services to support recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic have been put out to consultation by the Scottish Government.

The consultation proposes keeping permanently, or at least for an extended period, a range of measures from the emergency Coronavirus Acts that have been found beneficial as temporary provisions during the COVID restrictions. The powers are currently due to expire at the end of March 2022.

In addition consultees are invited to propose other measures that would support recovery from the pandemic.

As respects the justice system, the proposals include:

  • continuing the ability to make remote appearances from custody, for persons detained in police stations;
  • making permanent the increased availability of interim legal aid payments;
  • remote Parole Board hearings, in whole or part, to continue where the Board considers this in the interests of justice;
  • electronic signing and sending of court documents to continue;
  • virtual attendance for those required to attend court (leave of the court would be required in the case of a trial);
  • sheriffs to continue to have Scotland-wide jurisdiction to deal with first appearances from custody.

As respects time limits in criminal proceedings, the paper does not propose a specific approach, but discusses various issues relating to the different time limit extensions and seeks views as to the extent to which the extension of time limits should continue in effect, if at all, post-March 2022.

Other legal reforms include:

  • allowing execution of legal documents which formerly required physical presence, with administering of oaths, affirmations or declarations, to continue remotely;
  • remote hearings for alcohol and civic government licensing matters, where the body responsible considers this appropriate;
  • continuation of the £10,000 debt threshold (or alternatively £5,000) for a bankruptcy petition by a creditor;
  • continuing the six month moratorium on diligence (or alternatively 12 weeks), rather than six weeks, where a debtor is seeking advice;
  • continuing the extended discretionary grounds for eviction from private tenancies, and the pre-action protocol for eviction for rent arrears;
  • maintaining provisions that enable Scottish Ministers to enact measures via public health regulations for any future public health threats, and give directions regarding schools and other educational establishments during a pandemic.

Deputy First Minister and COVID Recovery Secretary John Swinney said: "This consultation focuses on reviewing the legislative powers that have supported our response to COVID-19. We want to ensure we remove measures no longer needed in order to respond to the pandemic whilst keeping those where there is demonstrable benefit to the people of Scotland.

"This is an opportunity to maintain changes that have been welcomed by people who now don’t want to lose transformations that have been innovative, beneficial, and increased access to services."

In response, Ken Dalling, President of the Law Society of Scotland, said: "We welcome this consultation, which will give the Law Society as well as other interested organisations and individuals the opportunity to consider the impact of the policy changes brought in to respond to the pandemic.

"As public health restrictions are lifting it is important to examine exactly what is in place and to consider where there are longer term benefits in continuing as we are, where changes are no longer needed, and where there should be additional measures to help support this next phase of recovery. The Law Society looks forward to considering and responding to the consultation in detail in the coming weeks."

Click here to access the consultation. Responses are due by 9 November 2021.