Current COVID-19 safety measures will remain in place when all of Scotland moves to level 0 on 19 July, but some relaxations will be made if the country moves beyond level 0 from 9 August, Scottish Courts & Tribunals Service said today.

The Law Society of Scotland welcomed the quick response to the First Minister's announcement yesterday, but voiced concerns that the plans do not go far enough toward reopening the courts, with more attention needed as to how complex cases will new handled.

SCTS's announcement said that current safety measures, including 2m physical distancing in courts and tribunals, were designed to operate between levels 0 and 4 and would not be changed between 19 July and 9 August. 

"Once Scotland moves beyond Level 0, we will take cautious steps in adapting our approach to maximise both safety and throughput of business", it continued. 

From 9 August: 

  • As maintaining distance in a crowded environment remains an effective mitigation against transmission of the virus, SCTS will encourage everyone to respect personal space by introducing 1m physical distancing in all its buildings. 
  • General public access to court buildings will continue to be restricted and public counters will remain closed.
  • The move to 1m physical distancing will allow more multi-accused trials to take place; increase summary trial loadings, allowing more witnesses to attend safely; provide vulnerable witnesses with enhanced support; and allow more family members of victims and accused to attend solemn trials. 
  • Mandatory wearing of face coverings will continue in line with current guidance. 
  • Robust baseline safety measures will remain in place to encourage good hand hygiene, maintain enhanced surface cleaning – especially of high touch-point areas – and maintain good ventilation. 
  • The “Safe2Go” contact system will be maintained, requiring all those visiting our buildings to check-in and check-out using the system. 

Guidance for court and tribunal users who need to come to court buildings, and the guidance relating to particular courts, will be reviewed in advance of 9 August, in order to reflect any changes required from that date. 

An additional 16 solemn and summary trial courts will run daily across the country from September to support the court recovery programme. Remote jury centres will continue, as will the suspension of physical attendance (except in relation to criminal trial diets or where otherwise directed), use of electronic signatures and electronic submission of case papers, and the virtual conduct of the majority of civil court and tribunal business.

Increased use will be made of fully virtual custody courts, virtual summary trials and pre-intermediate diet meetings. Further reviews will take place during September and October. 

Society concerns

Explaining the Law Society's concerns, President Ken Dalling commented: "There have been some areas where the benefits of digital working have been delivered, such as electronic signing and electronic submission of case paper. But that does not mean that every element of digital/virtual working should be retained for the future. There are some key principles which must be considered and respected to ensure that long-term goals towards digitalisation are not expedited at the expense of efficient and effective systems which we know already work.

"Managing the criminal case backlog shouldn’t simply be a numbers game of how many cases can be processed. It is vital that the cases with added complexities are prioritised and resourced. Some of these will need in-person hearings to resolve. This is likely to include cases involving accused who may be disadvantaged in a virtual setting, accused on long term remand or accused involved in multiple accused cases – which have largely been put on hold due to the pandemic – as well as cases with vulnerable witnesses. I am disappointed that more attention hasn’t been given to managing these issues within the plan."

He added: "The Law Society remains committed to working with SCTS and other agencies within the justice sector to help shape what our courts look like as we move past the pandemic. Additionally, to ensure access to justice for all it is important that long term changes to how court cases are conducted are reflected in legal aid fee structures. It is only by looking at these issues in the round, and with all relevant parties around the table, that we can create the innovative solutions needed to deliver a post-pandemic justice system for the people of Scotland."