High courts in Scotland have a backlog of 717 cases awaiting trial, including 49 killings, 465 serious sexual assaults and 182 other “major crimes”, MSPs have heard.
The Lord Advocate told Holyrood’s Justice Committee “a significant additional backlog of cases has built up at all levels of the court system” since the outbreak of coronavirus.
Giving evidence to the committee, James Wolffe warned the backlog will keep increasing until courts can return “at least to something like their pre-Covid-19 capacity”.
David Harvie, the head of the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, revealed 717 cases are awaiting trial at the high court, with at least one person on remand in 238 cases.
As of June 10, a further 1,584 cases have been indicted awaiting trial in the sheriff and jury courts – an increase of 11% since the end of March.
Mr Harvie said the backlog of cases before the coronavirus pandemic was already 14% higher in March than the previous year, with 18,319 cases outstanding across all levels of the criminal justice system.
He told MSPs the number of crimes reported to the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service fell from 12,450 in March to 10,063 cases in April, although by May this had risen to 12,436.
“Our expectations from those numbers is that will give us an extra 300 high court and 1,500 sheriff and jury cases, simply from those three months’ worth of reports,” he said.
Mr Wolffe said he is “acutely conscious of the consequences” of the coronavirus lockdown on the justice system, as well as the “human impact, both for accused persons and for victims of crime”.
He explained summary trials are set to resume, as well as preliminary hearings in the high court this week, while two models of jury trials will be tested next month.
The Lord Advocate added: “The Crown is continuing to process its existing caseload, it’s continuing to receive reports of crime and to deal with those it’s continuing to indict cases into the solemn courts and it’s continuing to serve summary complaints.
“It follows inevitably that during a period when virtually no trials have been able to take place across the system that the backlog has been increasing during this period.
“It also follows that for such a period as the court is unable to process cases at its normal capacity, that backlog is going to continue to increase.”
Mr Wolfe also revealed approximately 1,500 laptops and 800 smartphones have been issued to staff in the court system, enabling an estimated 90% to work from home during lockdown.
Mr Harvie said there is currently an absence rate of 1.6% of the workforce, with just 0.17% off for coronavirus-related reasons.
“We have been able to continue to mark cases, continue to deal with every court appearance whether that is an appearance physically at the court, whether that’s an administrative hearing or whether that’s a virtual hearing,” he said.
“Separately, we have been able to progress the preparation and investigation of cases that lead to indictment.”