Specialist online courts should be set up in each sheriffdom to tackle domestic abuse cases, a new report has concluded.
Led by Sheriff Principal Derek Pyle of Grampian, Highland & Islands, the Virtual Trials National Project Board follows its review of experience gained in the virtual summary trials project, which has held trials in Inverness and Aberdeen from May 2021. In findings presented to the Lord Justice General, the Scottish Courts & Tribunals Service (SCTS) and the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans, it recommends that every sheriffdom across Scotland should have a dedicated virtual summary court for domestic abuse cases.
The report examines different possibilities for the future of virtual summary trials. If only occasional, they would be difficult to programme; if made the default, there would be no obvious efficiencies, apart from travel; hybrid trials would bring benefits but also resource and capacity issues. It concludes that with domestic abuse cases comprising about a quarter of all outstanding summary trials, the introduction of the specialist virtual court would offer key advantages in:
- increasing protection and reducing trauma for complainers;
- making it easier for witnesses to give their evidence;
- offering efficiencies in reducing the need for individuals to travel to court and leaving existing courtroom capacity free for in-person cases;
- mitigating the impact of delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic on complainers and accused in domestic abuse cases; and
- maintaining consistency with the aims of capturing best evidence and introducing trauma-informed practices, as recommended in the Lord Justice Clerk’s recent report on sexual offences and the SCTS Evidence and Procedure Review.
The board, which included representation from across the justice system including defence agents and victims groups, carefully examined whether virtual trials can ensure that an accused receives a fair trial, including the assessment of credibility and reliability of witnesses, and concluded that they can. It also determined that SCTS had delivered acceptable standards of audio and visual quality in the hearings and, subject to appropriate resourcing, can do so in the future.
Feedback on the pilot virtual hearings from victims' groups was overwhelmingly positive.
The Lord Justice General, Lord Carloway, has responded: “I fully support the recommendation of the Virtual Trials National Project Board that a virtual domestic abuse summary trial court should be established in each sheriffdom. The pilot has clearly established the merit of this proposal. I congratulate the Project Board for their hard work and dedication to the project and their innovative and progressive thinking.”
SCTS executive director of Court Operations, David Fraser said: “SCTS welcomes the board’s findings and we look forward to working with our partners to see how we can implement them. The report highlights the key advantages that arise from being able to have those involved in a case remote from court and is another important step forward in improving services for vulnerable witnesses and complainers.”
Victim Support Scotland chief executive Kate Wallace added: “This change is long overdue. People we support in domestic abuse situations have given feedback that this way of giving evidence is more appropriate, more trauma-informed and also means they will not come face-to-face with the accused in court.
“Many victims who have come through the criminal justice system have found going to court as traumatic as the crime itself. This is unacceptable. Being able to give evidence virtually puts choice and control back into the hands of people who have suffered from domestic abuse, which is especially important following the traumatic aftermath of crime.”