The team at Legal Matters Scotland informs thousands of legal professionals of the latest stories shaping their profession. In this article, we have highlighted a selection of articles from recent months that have appeared in Legal Matters Scotland pertaining to the courts' system. Subjects here range from frustrations about case backlogs, digital innovations, streamlining of court services, to access to justice.
The head of Scotland’s police union has accused politicians, officials, watchdogs and senior officers of putting criminals before victims during the pandemic. Calum Steele, the Scottish Police Federation (SPF) general secretary, said police officers were “neglected and unsupported by government” during the pandemic. “The SPF is strongly of the view that the administration of justice has largely been forgotten about during this pandemic,” Steele wrote in a submission to Holyrood’s criminal justice committee. “Prisoners were released; suspects for serious offences were rarely kept in custody... Victims of crime were considered of lesser importance than the perpetrators of crime.” Scotland’s court system, Steele added, is facing a backlog of seven years. His members would have to “pick up the pieces” if prosecutors as a result decided to drop cases. The SPF general secretary warned that another possible measure to tackle the backlog — the issue of more fixed penalty notices — could “undermine confidence in the justice system”. The Scottish government responded to criticism of backlogs by saying it had released extra funding to help justice and policing to recover from the pandemic.
The Scottish Courts & Tribunals Service's monthly workbook for October shows that the overall level of new cases registered was 81% of the average monthly pre-COVID level, compared with 82% in August and 77% in July. Petitions, which provide a useful indicator of future solemn business, were 16% higher than the average monthly pre-COVID level (down from 30% higher in August and 21% in July). Among its other findings: the overall level of cases concluded (a newly introduced statistic) was 105% of the average monthly pre-COVID level; 47 High Court evidence led trials commenced, 12% higher than the average pre-COVID level; 62 High Court cases were concluded, 92% of the average pre-COVID level; 95 sheriff solemn evidence led trials commenced, the same as the average pre-COVID level; and 439 sheriff solemn cases were concluded which is 102% of the average pre-COVID level. “The introduction of additional trial courts in the High and sheriff courts from September 6th is a key element of our recovery programme and the impact is already being felt with criminal trials and throughput operating at, or beyond, pre-COVID levels even though these figures do not yet record a full month of operation of the additional courts", noted David Fraser, SCTS executive director, Court Operations.
The Journal of the Law Society of Scotland
SNP ministers need to create a specialist environmental court for Scotland. In July, findings from a UN body revealed that Scotland’s legal system was in breach of international environmental and human rights law due to the extremely high costs of taking legal action. The decision from the UNECE Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee confirmed a lack of progress in meeting the requirements of the Aarhus Convention, which guarantees everyone in Scotland the right to go to court to defend the environment. Scotland’s legal system has repeatedly been found in breach of the convention because of the high cost of taking legal action, with judicial reviews often running into the tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds. A new report published by the Environmental Rights Centre for Scotland (ERCS) has called for a low-cost environmental court to be set up in Scotland – claiming the move would improve accessibility, reduce costs and plug what the organisation deemed a gap in accountability over the environment. Author of the report and ERCS solicitor, Ben Christman, said: “Everyone in Scotland has the right to live in a healthy environment. He added: “An environmental court or tribunal would be a comprehensive way of bringing Scotland’s legal system into compliance with its obligations on environmental and human rights law."
An evidence sharing system is to be piloted next year which is expected to resolve criminal cases quicker. Axon Public Safety UK Ltd has been contracted by the Scottish Government to deliver the Digital Evidence Sharing Capability service (DESC). The new system, to be piloted in spring 2022, will change how evidence is collected, managed and shared – allowing police officers, prosecutors, court staff and defence agents to access evidence digitally. The Scottish Government said it will reduce costs involved in managing and transporting evidence, lead to quicker resolution of cases and potentially fewer trials as a result of earlier consideration and disclosure of evidence through the system. Andrew Laing is leading the project for the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS). He said: “Sharing of evidence has become more complicated in recent years as digital information is often held in a myriad of formats. The DESC service will allow COPFS to more easily access evidence gathered by the police and share it with the accused and their defence quicker and more efficiently."
STV, Evening Express
Child witnesses in court cases will be able to give evidence in pre-recorded interviews under a new scheme announced by the Scottish Government. Police officers and social workers will be able to interview children involved in criminal trials at the High Court, an approach aimed at reducing trauma experienced during court cases. The Vulnerable Witnesses (Criminal Evidence) Scotland Act 2019 created a new rule that child witnesses under 18 should be permitted to give pre-recorded evidence in the most serious cases. While the results of a pilot in Lanarkshire are yet to be evaluated, the new social-work led approach is said to have led to a significant rise in disclosures that could provide key evidence in forthcoming trials, ultimately improving conviction rates. Justice Secretary Keith Brown said the initiative aims to gather “the child's best evidence at the earliest opportunity” in a less stressful environment. The scheme is being included in police officer training.
Evening Express, The Herald
The Scottish Land Court and the Lands Tribunal for Scotland are to merge into a single body dealing with land and property issues, with the aim of providing a more streamlined service. Following a public consultation last year, Scottish ministers have concluded that a unified and expanded Land Court would offer substantial benefits to court users. Legislation will be brought forward during the current Parliament. "Both the Tribunal and the Court have always been valued by their users, and I believe this change will provide a better service to the public, providing a one stop shop for most land issues," said Lord Minginish, Chair of the Scottish Land Court and President of the Lands Tribunal for Scotland. "It will also allow the personnel and talents which each of these bodies possesses to be available across the entire spectrum of their jurisdictions, putting an end to current statutory anomalies whereby certain questions can get referred from one body to the other".
The Journal of the Law Society of Scotland
Defence solicitors and bar associations across Scotland have declared their refusal to take part in the planned weekend custody courts to deal with an expected spike in arrests during the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow. Bar associations in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Hamilton, Alloa and Falkirk have voted to boycott the courts, in protest at the Scottish Government's failure to improve legal aid rates or safeguard the future of the defence bar, which they say is losing members weekly as the prosecution service recruits. Tweeting its support, the Scottish Solicitors' Bar Association said it was "fully behind" associations which had voted to boycott the extra courts "imposed on the profession without consultation".
The Journal of the Law Society of Scotland
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