A top Aberdeen Sheriff has slammed an “unsatisfactory” hold up to the restart of jury trials in the north of Scotland, as case dates are being set in busy Central Belt courts.
Sheriff Graham Buchanan, who has been forced to reschedule dozens of jury trials due to the impact of Covid-19, said Aberdeen Sheriff Court had been “left in the lurch” to “wait and wonder what is going on”.
One victim support charity described the situation as “devastating” for those who have suffered as a result of crime in Aberdeen and said a 400% rise in people expressing suicidal thoughts was “in part” due to delays in trials going ahead.
Sheriff Buchanan said: “What strikes me as so unsatisfactory is that in the Central Belt, in busy courts like Glasgow, Edinburgh and Paisley, they are able to fix jury trials and know what’s happening – we don’t have a clue in Aberdeen.
“I know there are all these difficulties we have had and one has recognised there are very serious issues for those who are trying to arrange the resumption of trials.
“But we just haven’t heard anything here about plans to resume jury trials and it strikes me that it’s about time we did.”
Aberdeen and Inverness jury trials have been suspended since March in order to adhere to social distancing measures, however, it has resulted in a situation where cases are vying for limited space in the Sheriff Court schedule in 2021.
Kate Wallace, chief executive of Victim Support Scotland, said her organisation has been “hugely concerned” about the real life and negative impact that delays to trials going ahead have had on people impacted by crime.
She added: “It compounds what is already a difficult situation for them, at a time when they are often at their most vulnerable.
“While we recognise there is work happening in parts of the country to resume trials, there needs to be more progress across Scotland to speed up resuming trials in a way that puts victims first.”
Tony Burgess, criminal defence lawyer for the Just Defence Law Practice in Aberdeen, called the situation “unacceptable” and said solicitors had been “left scurrying about trying to find out what’s happening on all levels of work”.
He added: “Good for one should be good for everybody, I don’t know if it’s been a breakdown in communication or what, but I dare say it’s focussed on getting the greater amount of backlog down in the Central Belt.”
Matthew O’Neil, partner at Cruikshank Law Service in Elgin, hit out at what he called a “Central Belt bias” and said the position for jury trials in Inverness were “exactly the same as in Aberdeen”.
He added: “We seem to get the raw end of the deal up here.
“People are just stuck in limbo and not knowing whether they are coming or going.”
A spokesman for the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service, said a new “working group”, chaired by Sheriff Principal Craig Turnbull, had been established to oversee the restart of sheriff and jury trials.
He added: “At the moment we are seeking to conclude a venue contract which will allow the restart of Aberdeen Sheriff and jury trials in the New Year.
“Until then it is not possible to release trial dates for Aberdeen Sheriff Court.”