Courts to cut number of criminal trials during coronavirus outbreak

The number of all types of criminal trials will be cut as part of measures to maintain the justice system during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service (SCTS) said Covid-19 is now having a significant impact on the Scottish justice system and this will accelerate in the coming weeks and months.

On Monday, the SCTS said no new criminal jury trials will be started or new juries empanelled until further notice.

It has now announced there will be a “significant reduction” in summary criminal trials, those for less serious offences, which take place before a sheriff with no jury.

Courts will focus on trials in which the accused is in custody and “by exception” a small number of non-custody trials when witnesses are available, with these likely to be limited to cases relating to domestic abuse, sexual offending and violence.

The court service said it is also exploring ways to increase the opportunities to pre-record evidence, enable evidence to be given from other locations and generally expand the use of technology.

In a statement, the SCTS said: “The measures announced today aim to ensure that the public can maintain the trust and confidence that justice continues, that we protect the health of those using our courts and tribunals and that essential cases are dealt with to maintain public safety.

“The lord president and lord advocate have agreed to a programme of changes to criminal court business, which together with changes to civil court business, tribunal hearings and the work of the Office of the Public Guardian, will provide a sustainable response during this outbreak.

“The arrangements will support the public heath response by reducing the requirement for physical attendance at courts or hearings whenever possible, reducing the risk to staff, judiciary and all court users.

“These arrangements prioritise essential or exceptional business and have been made with intent to support a managed recovery when that is possible.”

Jury trials that are under way will continue to their conclusion when possible.

Jurors who have been cited for future trials have been asked not to come to court and the SCTS said it does not expect to start citing jurors again until June.

Criminal appeals will continue as normal, as will appeals at the Court of Session, Scotland’s highest civil court.

Civil business without witnesses will continue as normal where possible at both the Court of Session and Sheriff Courts and where the parties involved agree, hearings may proceed on written submissions or via telephone or video conferencing.

The SCTS said all non-critical work across the tribunals that it support is now being stopped, with tribunals moving to postpone scheduled hearings.

It said that where these are time-critical, such as some hearings of the Mental Health Tribunal, they are being changed to telephone hearings to reduce travel and protect the parties involved.

The Office of the Public Guardian will be prioritising work, particularly powers of attorney and guardianship orders, to ensure that essential services are maintained as far as possible.

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