A true legal "year of two halves" has been reviewed by the Lord President, Lord Carloway, in his annual address to mark the opening of the new legal year.
Speaking to a reduced bench and audience in court 1 of the Court of Session, in a ceremony that was live streamed for the first time, the Lord President recalled that in last year's address he had said there was a long way to go in achieving online processing across all courts and tribunals. That "slow path of modernisation" had continued during the six months from last September to March – though it was worth noting the continuing rollout of the integrated case management system across the courts, the improvements to Civil Online, and the new Vulnerable Witnesses Act, which resulted from the Evidence and Procedure Review.
Once the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic was realised, however, change was rapidly accelerated, and Lord Carloway paid tribute to court staff "for their ingenuity in developing new ways of processing business, and for their unstinting commitment and professionalism in supporting the judiciary and continuing to serve the people of Scotland in these difficult times".
He also thanked the legal profession for its "forbearance" as the modes of Scottish justice adapted: "In particular, I would like thank those representatives of the Faculty and the Law Society and all those members of the professions whose wisdom and practical knowledge have been indispensable in developing achievable solutions to the complex problems presented by COVID-19." What previously would have taken years was done in weeks.
Looking forwards, the Lord President warned that "Those seeking an indication of when and to what extent things may return to normal, will be disappointed." It seemed likely that all of the current remote systems will subsist for the coming legal year; and "Even after a vaccine is developed, when sports stadia are full and the pubs are open after 10pm, courts and tribunals will not return to the way things were."
He added: "We have not always got everything exactly right first time. This is not easy. It is an inevitable consequence of such rapid change that the new ways of working will require to be improved, expanded and amended...
"As the virus abates and eventually disappears, we will need to consider how best to take advantage of the advances that have been made, and how to build – constructively and in collaboration with the professions and other interests – a digitally-enabled courts and tribunals service that provides justice in a manner responsive to the needs of modern society.
"At a time of impositions on our basic liberties, it is vital that access to, and trust in, the courts is preserved. Open justice has scarcely been more important, but has never been more difficult to achieve. It is not possible to grant to the general public physical access to courts and tribunals. SCTS is working hard to ensure that journalists, as observers and reporters to the public, continue to have access and to assist the public at large to identify and join remote hearings. The presiding judge will always determine whether proceedings can safely be broadcast in the interests of justice, but the number of remotely accessible hearings will increase."
Lord Carloway concluded by welcoming individually the 10 newly appointed Queen's Counsel.