Work has been continuing over the Easter holiday weekend to create a digital capability for certain Outer House and sheriff court work, with further announcements to follow shortly, Scottish Courts & Tribunals Service said today.

The courts administration service was criticised last week for the lack of progress in enabling remote hearings during the COVID-19 shutdown, in contrast to jurisdictions including England & Wales. Although Court of Session Inner House appeals will recommence by videoconference from 21 April, no business had yet been announced for the courts of first instance apart from the emergency applications still being allowed to proceed. SCTS said then that converting to digital hearings was challenging when court processes remained paper based.

Today SCTS announced that it is increasing the capability for judges and clerks in the Outer House to work remotely. Further information will be issued later this week on restarting priority areas of Outer House business using telephone conference facilities.

In the sheriff court it is now piloting a system which will enable all legal representation for criminal custody and remand cases to take place remotely using telephone links, removing the need for physical attendance by solicitors or accused. It will also introduce video links for legal representation in custody trials, beginning  on 21 April. Full guidance will be published this week.

Civil business in the sheriff courts remains limited to urgent and necessary cases, with the courts making use of telephone conferencing to support urgent business, and encouraging the use of written submissions.  A similar approach is being taken across the devolved tribunals, with essential hearings of the Mental Health Tribunal for Scotland continuing to take place via telephone conference.

From next wee, Inner House business will be conducted as a virtual court, with a three judge bench. Two channels will be available to each party for counsel and instructing solicitors. In supporting access to justice, multiple channels will also be available to media and interested persons to view the entire virtual court proceedings. With initial configuration and internal testing complete, parties involved in the first appeal hearings will be invited to take part in testing and familiarisation over the next few days. 

SCTS added that it was in discussion with the Law Society of Scotland on what areas of business would be most appropriate to prioritise for remote working and what criteria should apply to identify those cases that could be advanced while the lockdown period continues.

Chief executive Eric McQueen commented: “The Faculty of Advocates and the Law Society are rightly both challenging and collaborative in helping to find solutions. The measures we are putting in place this week are a big step forward; however, while we remain in lockdown, any steps must be proportionate to the requirement to protect public health.

“Since social distancing measures and the effective lockdown of our communities came into place three weeks ago, everyone’s daily lives have changed dramatically. We do not know how long this will last, but we do know that it is critical to delay the spread of the virus, to protect the NHS and most importantly to save lives.

“My priorities remain protecting our staff, the judiciary and wider courts and tribunal users, while maintaining public confidence that the essential justice services we are responsible for can continue.”