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Coronavirus: Virtual trials to be held at Aberdeen Sheriff Court

Aberdeen Sheriff Court.
Aberdeen Sheriff Court.

Virtual trials are set to be held at Aberdeen Sheriff Court this week, as the country’s legal system bids to adapt to operating in the midst of Covid-19.

The Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service is piloting the new approach to summary level trials, which are held before a sheriff and not a jury, at courts in Aberdeen and Inverness.

A dummy run was expected to take place today, with the first virtual trial held on Wednesday.

The move will see all parties carry out their different roles remotely from their own homes, office or another room at court and appear via video link.

The press will also be given access via the link to enable proceedings to be reported on.

A court officer will be present with the accused person, while respecting social distancing, throughout the trial.

Witnesses will also have a court officer or witness support official present with them while giving evidence.

Aberdeen Bar Association president Stuart Murray, of Murray Ormiston, said: “I think that any steps that the Scottish Courts Service can take to get hings moving again can only be a good thing.

“There are some clients who don’t want to take part in the system if it ever gets up and running but there are clients who have the stress of a court case hanging over their heads and are keen to get on and have it dealt with.

“It’s whether or not the technology works and everybody can be socially distanced properly.

“The solicitor can either work from their own office or home and the client will be in their own home as well.

“I’m not quite sure where the sheriff is going to be.

“My understanding is they’re going to have witnesses in the court building giving evidence from one of the courts.”

Solicitor Liam Mcallister, partner at Lefevre Litigation, is set to act in the first virtual trials on Wednesday.

He said: “We are keen to do whatever we can to try and restore some degree of normality to the criminal justice system and to allow some degree of certainty for our clients in these uncertain times, as they are understandably, incredibly anxious about when it will be they can finally have their cases tried, and concluded and determined by a presiding sheriff.

“Whilst rightly, there has been a focus on how the most serious cases, jury cases, can resume, the majority of criminal trials in Scotland are before a single sheriff or Justice of the Peace, and as such affect the majority of people across the country.

“The Aberdeen Bar will always engage in whatever way it can to make things work in some way for our clients, and for the criminal justice system as a whole. If we can conduct some cases remotely or virtually, then we will strive to make it work as our only concern is ensuring our clients receive a fair and just trial.”

A court document detailing the way in which the pilot trials will run stated: “The trial diet will be allocated a fixed start time. It is essential that all parties are ready to commence the trial at the time fixed. All preparations, discussions or negotiations must have taken place and concluded before the start time provided.

“In advance of the trial diet the sheriff clerk will have provided all necessary instructions for remote attendance including dial in details setting out the system to be used and the access code. Parties must have verified that they have the necessary equipment in working order for the conduct of the trial in advance of the start of the trial.

“The sheriff and clerk of court respectively may be in a court building or may
be in attendance from another place or places.

“All other parties will be appearing by live video and audio link from other
venues as specified in the directions made by the court.”

Eric McQueen, chief executive of the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service, said:  “I appreciate we are a long way from a new business as usual; social distancing requirements will be with us for some time, and reduce our building and physical hearing capacity by two thirds.

“The emphasis therefore has to be on maximising digital and remote business solutions, reducing the number of people in any court and tribunals building. This will be challenging for us all and we are all learning. In these last weeks remarkable progress has been made and we need to make that sustainable, as ultimately digital solutions will lie at the heart of our courts and tribunals system.”

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