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History made as Aberdeen court hosts virtual trials

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History was made at Aberdeen Sheriff Court yesterday as two “virtual trials” were held completely through an online video link. Evening Express court reporter Danny McKay followed proceedings live from his home and gives his verdict on how the revolutionary pilot went.

It was somewhat surreal to swap the grand, formal surroundings of the Aberdeen Sheriff Court building for a laptop screen at home, but as the coronavirus-enforced  social distancing measures look set to be around for some time, it’s good to see the legal system taking unprecedented steps to adapt.

And barring a few technical difficulties and delays, the day, which encompassed two summary trials, ran relatively smoothly.

Instead of turning up at court for 10am and sitting in the press seats waiting for proceedings to start, I had to register my interest in having access to the live video and log in for it in time for the scheduled starts.

All parties were in position in separate rooms either in the court building, their offices or homes for a prompt start.

Although there was a delay in the first case, a domestic trial in which a man faced charges of theft and breaching a bail condition, as the first witness could not be added to the call.

The virtual court was adjourned for a few minutes until the issue was sorted out, but the trial was soon under way.

Sheriff Ian Wallace appeared in full gown and wig, in front of a plain white background, possibly from his chambers in the court building, while all other parties appeared on camera in full appropriate court attire.

Fiscal depute Alan Townsend appeared in front of a window with a pleasant view across a street with a tree visible, and the clerk of court had signage behind her.

As Mr Townsend questioned the first witness, the other parties muted their microphones to ensure there was no unwanted echos or feedback.

However for some people the link to the witness seemed unstable and the picture was lost repeatedly.

There must have been at least a dozen occasions when the fiscal depute or another party had to pause, ask the witness if she could still see and hear them, and then wait for the picture to return.

When the second witness, a police officer live from Kittybrewster station, gave evidence there was again a slight issue connecting them to the feed, and the court was adjourned again while the connection was established.

Following the conclusion of the first trial there was an adjournment for lunch before an assault trial got under way at 2pm.

The second case seemed to run more smoothly than the first although there was one point when the clerk of court interrupted to say the accused had raised his hand.

Sheriff Wallace asked defence lawyer Liam Mcallister of Lefevre Litigation if he wished to confer with his client.

Mr Mcallister, who appeared as the solicitor in both of the virtual trials, said his client had texted him to say he had momentarily lost the live feed but that it was now working again.

Speaking in between the two trials, Mr Mcallister, who described the proceedings as “historic and unprecedented”, said: “I think it went as well as can be expected in what is just a pilot.

“These are just preliminary attempts to utilise and test the technology.

“I think there were, understandably, some video delays that we were experiencing. That’s something that can clearly be addressed and looked at.

“It was an entirely virtual trial. There was no contact whatsoever, even from a distance.

“It’s all very new to us.”

This article originally appeared on the Evening Express website. For more information, read about our new combined website.