North-east solicitors have welcomed a move to ease physical distancing measures in Scottish courts next month which will allow more trials to be heard.
The Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service has announced that it will go from two metres to one metre distancing in its buildings from August 9, when it is hoped the country will move beyond level 0.
Courts will also continue to use remote jury centres – and make increasing use of virtual custody courts.
However, other Covid safety measures such as the wearing of face coverings will stay in place.
General public access to court buildings will also continue to be restricted, and public counters will still be closed.
It comes after concerns were raised over the scale of the challenge to clear the backlog of cases caused by the Covid crisis.
‘I welcome any cautious approach’
Andrew Ormiston, of Murray and Ormiston solicitors said: “I welcome any cautious approach that is being considered by the court in enhancing society’s ability to access justice.
“I understand there is a model that is being tested by the High Court, if that proves effective, will be trickled down to solemn sheriff business then summary business.
“Any attempt to clear the backlog of cases is welcomed as long as it is safe. I would have to be satisfied that they have carried out appropriate risk assessments to ensure the safety of participants in the trial.
“There are a number of court rooms here (Aberdeen Sheriff Court) which potentially you could have co-accused trials in but there’s also a lot of other rooms that are not suitable so it shouldn’t be a return to normal without due consideration to safety.”
Meanwhile, Mike Monro of city firm Mackie and Dewar said: “Anything that allows for us getting business through the system quicker than before is to be accepted.”
However, Gregor Kelly of Lefevre Litigation raised concerns that moving too fast could lead to increased risk for court users and solicitors.
He said: “The current rules have served us well during the pandemic and hitherto to have avoided any major outbreaks in the north-east courts.
“Whilst continuing mask usage is to be applauded, I am concerned that moving too fast too soon might lead to increased risk for court users, and in particular for solicitors from small firms or indeed sole practitioners, for whom enforced self isolation or increased risk of contracting the virus would lead to another period of zero income.”
‘Baseline safety measures will stay’
A statement from the SCTS said: “While the vaccine gives us real hope and is breaking the link between case numbers and hospitalisation, the First Minister stressed that this is the time for continued caution.
“Baseline safety measures, including mandatory face coverings, will remain in place as a gradual approach to the easing of restrictions is taken.”
“The current safety measures in our courts and tribunals, including 2 metre physical
distancing, were designed to operate at all levels from 0 to 4.
“These measures are well understood by all users, supported by clear guidance and by visible signage throughout all our buildings. Therefore, we will not be making any immediate changes in the relatively short period between July 19 and August 9.
“Once Scotland moves beyond Level 0, we will take cautious steps in adapting our
approach to maximise both safety and throughput of business.”
Move to one metre distancing
However, it’s not known how many more trials the move would help it accommodate.
It also said it would allow more witnesses and family members of victims and accused persons to safely attend as well as enabling enhanced support for who require it.
Safety measures such as encouraging good hand hygiene, maintaining enhanced surface cleaning and good ventilation will stay in place.
The statement from SCTS added: “Moving beyond Level 0 will support the court recovery programme, with an additional 16 solemn and summary trial courts running daily across the country from September.”
The SCTS says it also plans to make increasing use of virtual custody courts and virtual summary trials.
It will also hold the majority of civil court and tribunals business virtually in order to free up physical court space to focus on criminal case backlogs and civil and tribunal cases requiring in-person hearings.
‘Cautious approach to relaxation of restrictions’
The SCTS said reviews of the guidance will take place during September and October, considering the public health advice at that point and its implications for the measures in place.
It added: “We would like to thank everyone for their continuing commitment and flexibility as we take further careful steps towards normality.
“In taking a cautious approach to the relaxation of restrictions we can ensure that everyone who uses our buildings can continue to feel safe – while focusing on increasing business throughput to address case backlogs.”