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Courts' trial case load slashed up to 75 per cent by Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service amid impact of Covid-19 coronavirus; the measure affects Highland sheriff courts

By Philip Murray

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Court..Inverness Justice Centre nigfht locator...Picture: Gary Anthony..
Court..Inverness Justice Centre nigfht locator...Picture: Gary Anthony..

CRIMINAL courts in the Highlands are creaking under the strain of the Covid pandemic – after the number of trials was slashed by up to 75 per cent.

Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service has announced that all but the most serious criminal trials in Sheriff Courts and Justice of the Peace Courts are being "adjourned" until a future date, effective immediately.

The move, which will cut the number of criminal trials taking place during lockdown by up to 75 per cent, is being made in direct response to the "increasing spread of the new variant of Covid-19 across Scotland", the Lord President, Lord Carlaway, has said.

The measures are expected to remain in place until February 28, and are likely to lead to an increasing backlog of court cases across the Highlands.

"New arrangements will be introduced in Scotland’s courts from Tuesday, January 12, in order to support the public health response to the Covid-19 pandemic at this critical time," said the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service in a statement.

"These will significantly reduce the number of people required to attend court in person, whilst ensuring that the most essential business is maintained in the interests of justice and the safety of those involved.

"The Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service has very clear guidance from Public Health Scotland on the measures that are required to minimise the potential transmission of the virus and on how the courts can continue to operate safely under the current restrictions.

"Court buildings and court rooms adhere strictly to that guidance. While there is an increased risk of transmission from the new variant of Covid across the wider community, the clinical advice has remained that, provided the FACTS guidance is followed, the working environment is as safe as possible.

"Nonetheless, the position across the country as a whole has changed over the last week, requiring us to review our position.

"On Friday we discussed the rapid spread of the new Covid-19 variant with senior public health officials in the Scottish Government.

"With their advice and the recognition that we have taken all the right steps in making our buildings safe, we have determined that we should focus on the most essential business to reduce travel, overall footfall and physical interaction in our courts and therefore support the public health response at this critical time.

"As a result all our courts will remain open but we are taking immediate steps to reduce the numbers attending from Tuesday, January 12.

"The Lord President has been clear in setting business priorities. All criminal jury trials in the High Court and Sheriff Court must continue. These will focus on the most serious cases, where people are in custody and where the nature of the alleged offence, including sexual offences and offences involving domestic abuse and children, demand that priority be given.

"From Tuesday all new custody cases and summary custody trials in the Sheriff courts and Justice of the Peace courts will proceed. All non-custody trials will be administratively adjourned, with the provision to accelerate priority or urgent trials, such as those involving allegations of domestic abuse or child witnesses. A number of procedural hearings will also be administratively adjourned.

"All criminal appeals, the Bail Appeal Court, Office of the Public Guardian and Tribunals will continue to operate virtually and remotely, as they have been doing throughout the pandemic.

"Similarly the vast majority of all civil business in the Court of Session and Sheriff Court will continue to be conducted remotely. This includes the All Scotland Personal Injury Court (ASSPIC) and the Sheriff Appeal Court (SAC).

Guidance has been issued for those affected by the moves. For more information visit the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service's website here or here.

The service said that it is currently planning under the assumption that the new measures will be in place until February 28, but added that this date "will be kept under regular review with a formal review planned for February 15".

They added: "The effect of these measures will be to significantly reduce the level of business currently being conducted in person in the courts, focusing on the most serious and sensitive cases only at this time."

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