Details of the first digitally-enabled court hearings in the Court of Session in response to the coronavirus situation have been released by Scottish Courts & Tribunals Service (SCTS).

The Court of Session virtual court will convene on Tuesday 21 April before the Lord President, Lord Carloway, sitting with Lords Menzies and Brodie, to hear the appeal by the pursuer, Stuart Campbell, who lost his defamation action in the sheriff court against former Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale.

Three further cases will be heard on succeeding days next week. SCTS has been working with parties to pilot and agree proceedings in the virtual court.

The Second Division will deal with procedural hearings, conducted by written submissions with no physical attendance in the courtroom.

Judges will also sit in the Outer House to deal with procedural matters via telephone conference or by written submissions.

SCTS chief executive Eric McQueen commented: "We are grateful to the judiciary, staff, Faculty and parties who have worked with us to create the virtual Inner House Appeal Court. While this is an immediate response to coronavirus, there is no doubt that the learning will inform our thinking to make virtual courts a permanent addition to our Scottish courts. It is thanks to everyone’s commitment and support that we are able to create the online court and to introduce remote hearings into the Outer House."

He added: "We are currently in discussion with sheriffs principal and the Law Society of Scotland on the scope of urgent and essential civil business in sheriff courts, to assess whether other business can be carried out remotely and what phased steps can be taken."

Criminal custody hearings also going remote

For criminal hearings in the sheriff court, from Monday (except in Edinburgh and Aberdeen Sheriff Courts where there is a local holiday) representatives will be able in most cases to take part in custody hearings remotely, reducing the requirement to travel and attend court. 

Currently all custodies, confirmed or suspected of having coronavirus or those claiming to have coronavirus are dealt with via videolink from court to police custody, and with the involvement of all parties it is intended that the courts continue to increase the numbers appearing via the link to the point where all custodies are conducted by videolink. At that point it is anticipated that all custody cases could be conducted with parties participating remotely. 

Only those with a direct role in proceedings, and journalists, can currently attend court and social distancing must be personally observed. 

Society seeks consistency

Lorna Jack, chief executive of the Law Society of Scotland, welcomed the move as "a positive response to the concerns we have raised on behalf of our members", but called for further work to ensure access to justice during the current crisis. "In particular it is important to address the recurring concern raised by members about the inconsistent approach being taken to date in the various sheriff courts and the Court of Session as to what and how business will be dealt with."

She said that as a result of an approach she had made to Mr McQueen last weekend, the Society had been invited to comment on the SCTS priorities for civil business, and had contributed views during the week.

She added: "I have now written to the chief executive of SCTS to indicate our support for their existing priorities, and to ask for more information about what is realistic to expect the current court resources to be able to support during this time. This will allow us to gather more detailed feedback on the additional priority areas we think should be focused on next towards the goal of recommencing administrative processes for as many aspects of civil business as possible using electronic submissions or audio/videoconferencing facilities.

"We are also engaged in ongoing discussions with SCTS regarding commissary business, particularly in light of the Lord President’s direction [click here for report]. We look forward to further discussions with SCTS to refine these priorities and to find safe, practical solutions for the benefit of everyone involved."