Aberdeen lawyers have called for the P&J Live and Music Hall to be turned into temporary courtrooms to help tackle the mounting backlog of cases due to coronavirus.
Courts across the country all but ground to a halt in March when the Covid-19 pandemic first took hold in the UK, and sheriff and jury trials have still not resumed.
With the backlog ever-increasing, meaning some cases can take around two years from the time of the incident to the date of trial, solicitors are calling for innovative action to help keep things moving.
Defence solicitor Mike Monro, a partner at Mackie & Dewar, said: “For summary courts we’re getting trials fixed for new cases for the end of April next year, which is seven months from the date of the first calling of the case to the trial.
“It can take six months for a case to come to court in the first place.
“It’s not fair on an accused, particularly if he maintains his innocence. He may have things hanging over his head for over a year.”
Mr Monro said he had one client accused of a driving offence said to have happened in April 2019, with a trial date set for April 2021.
He said: “It’s not fair on the accused, it’s not fair on complainers. They will have this hanging over them, they may be nervous, they may know the person who is alleged to have assaulted them.”
Mr Monro added: “I do question as to whether we have, over the last few months, made the best use of what facilities we have.
“We’ve heard talk about using cinemas for jury trials, what’s wrong with the exhibition centres and the Music Hall. They would have plenty of space to carry out jury trials in particular.
“Everything ground to a halt in March and April, but six months down the line I do not anticipate being able to conduct a jury trial the rest of this calendar year.
“You could put a great big marquee in Marischal Quad.”
Defence agent Lynn Bentley, a partner at Aberdein Considine, said: “With regard to the backlog in solemn courts, that was in existence long before Covid-19, and six months in the Scottish Government has done nothing with regard to getting sheriff and jury trials moving.
“In England, where I used to be a member of the law society, they’re now hiring other buildings. I just think it’s shameful that people remain remanded in custody.
“With regard to summary backlogs, yes they’ve started some trials moving, but the backlog was in existence long before Covid-19, and Covid-19 is being used as an excuse for doing nothing.
“Take over buildings, use the accommodation that’s available, get juries moving. You’re going to have to do it.
“People are locked up as innocent people until a court decides otherwise, and it’s shameful.
“It’s solvable. And to pretend that there’s absolutely nothing they can do about it.
“Compare the system south of the border, where the crown courts have now been running for a good month or so, a huge volume of jury trials have taken place there with practical arrangements having been put in place.”
Stuart Murray, president of Aberdeen Bar Association, said: “Whilst there have been efforts made by the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service, to adapt to the pandemic, it is clear that it is too little, too late.
“In trials which do not require a jury, the Aberdeen Bar Association can see no reason why courts cannot be physically adapted to allow witnesses, accused persons and court staff to remain safe, whilst being involved in the trial process. Courts could fairly easily be fitted with perspex screens, in the same way that shops, banks and other commercial premises have been adapted.
“The issue is, of course, more complex when making arrangements for Jury trials. Jurors are an essential part of the Scottish legal system and when giving up their valuable time to allow justice to be done, they must be protected from the virus.
“That being said, there are a number of buildings that in the opinion of the Aberdeen Bar Association, could be utilised locally, to allow Jury trial to begin again.”
A spokesman for the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service (SCTS), which recently announced plans to start High Court trials in Edinburgh and Glasgow with juries watching proceedings from a cinema, said: “The next step in our plans is to consider how the remote jury centre model can be extended to include sheriff court jury trials across in Scotland.
“Having a wider range of remote jury centres will also enable High Court trials to take place in Aberdeen.”
It comes as figures revealed the backlog of cases had worsened during the pandemic.
In the Grampian, Highland and Islands region, there were a total of 6,597 trials scheduled across solemn, summary and Justice of the Peace level proceedings in the most recent figures. That’s up from 6,011 at the end of 2019/20.
And across Scotland as a while figures show a total of 18,355 were scheduled at the end of the last financial year, rising to 22,437 in the most recent figures.
Liam Kerr, Scottish Conservative justice spokesman said: “Inevitably, the enforced shut down of our courts has significantly reduced the number of trials that can be seen.
“This has added to an already unacceptable situation that Humza Yousaf must now address – over 22,000 trials are still waiting to be heard.”
We are working tirelessly with partners, including victims groups, the Scottish courts and prosecution services, and the legal profession to quickly find the best possible way to deal with the backlog.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We understand the impact trial delays have on victims, witnesses and accused, and recently announced £5.5 million to establish the ground-breaking solution of remote jury centres which will allow the High Court to return to pre-Covid capacity.
“We are working tirelessly with partners, including victims groups, the Scottish courts and prosecution services, and the legal profession to quickly find the best possible way to deal with the backlog. This includes consideration of remote jury centres in sheriff and jury cases, optimising the use of the physical court estate within the prevailing public health requirements, increased use of digital technology where appropriate and additional support to organisations supporting victims.”
Kevin Stewart MSP said: “The SNP has led from the front on the matter, working tirelessly with all bodies involved to assist the courts and deal with the backlog of cases which have understandably built up through what remains an extremely serious and ongoing pandemic.”
The SCTS spokesman added: “The SCTS recently published ‘Covid-19 Respond, Recover and Renew – Supporting Justice through the pandemic and beyond’. The report sets out the steps taken by SCTS to respond to Covid-19, the steps being taken to manage recovery and how we can draw on those experiences and lessons to build a more just, resilient and efficient system, working in collaboration with others across the justice system.
“To support the publication of the report, four analytical modelling reports for High Courts, Sheriff Solemn, Sheriff Summary and Justice of the Peace Court trials have also been published. The reports analyse the effect of physical distancing on the business and alternative models to reduce the backlog.
“The reports provide transparency and aid discussion on different options to ensure that the right solutions are explored. With summary trials having resumed in all courtrooms, we are developing virtual summary trials and remote jury centres. Because of physical distancing, the number of trials proceeding is inevitably reduced. We are assessing options to increase the capacity for trials and are engaging with the legal profession, justice organisations and the 3rd sector on the resource impact across the whole justice system.”
Many accused persons have the stress and anxiety of having criminal charges hanging over them for well over a year”
Paul Barnett, partner George Mathers and Co.
Despite the steps being taken Aberdeen solicitor Paul Barnett, a partner at George Mathers and Co, said they were “fighting a losing battle” trying to tackle the backlog.
He said: “It is a very real and significant problem. Many accused persons have the stress and anxiety of having criminal charges hanging over them for well over a year, affecting their mental health, their relationships if there are unwanted bail conditions preventing contact with partners or family, and in some cases even their employment.
“Victims of crimes are also having to wait far too long for their cases to be heard.
“The Scottish Courts, the Procurator Fiscals office and defence solicitors are all making a huge effort to address this problem but all of these sectors are massively under-resourced and are fighting a losing battle.”
Gregor Kelly, partner at Lefevre Litigation, added: “The Covid-19 pandemic has had a catastrophic effect on the swift administration of justice in the Grampian region.
“The backlog in High Court trials is well documented but the public should be aware that those accused of less serious crimes are waiting a considerable time for a fair trial.
“Cases at summary level from as far back as 2018 are being pushed back to trial dates in 2021 leaving accused, complainers and witnesses seriously inconvenienced.
“Those awaiting trial who are subject to onerous bail conditions are being excluded from matrimonial homes for protracted periods and unable to progress careers and education plans due to a lack of clarity.
“Sheriffs are now prioritising urgent trials and encouraging pragmatic resolution, these are unprecedented times and all partners in the criminal justice system must work to make roads into the court backlog.”