Aberdeen solicitors have branded plans to make virtual trials the default process “wrong” and not “proper justice”.
Criminal defence solicitors hit out after Sheriff Principal Derek Pyle recommended virtual trials, with all parties appearing from different locations in a group video call, become the “default method of judicial determination in summary crime”.
Two virtual trials were held in Aberdeen last month as part of a pilot of the technology, introduced to limit contact in during the coronavirus pandemic while social distancing is needed.
I don’t think it’s proper justice.”
Reacting to the news virtual trials could become the norm, defence agent Mike Monro, of Mackie & Dewar, said: “I personally haven’t been involved in a virtual trial, but being a solicitor of quite a number of years experience I’m wholly and utterly against the system.
“I don’t think it’s proper justice.
“Everybody being collectively together is what is needed so you can see reactions to the evidence being led, and that included the reaction from the sheriff.
“I find it absolutely ridiculous that the only people in the court building are the participants, the accused and the witnesses.
“My least acceptable situation is if I could at least be in the same room with the accused that would be a bit of a help.
“The solicitor has contact with their client by way of their mobile phones.”
Mr Monro said solicitors would be expected to juggle having statements in front of them, making sure they are visible on camera, watching everybody else’s picture for reactions, and communicating with their clients via text, adding: “That is a recipe for disaster.”
The solicitor also pointed out that witnesses are often asked to describe distances in the context of courtrooms.
He said: “A witness says he’s two metres away and you ask him to use the courtroom for dimensions and what he thinks is two metres turns out to be 12 metres.”
Mr Monro added: “I think this is just an attempt by those trying to get rid of the normal course of trials and summary procedure to use coronavirus as a way in to change it fundamentally.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg because you’ve got the jury trials situation which hasn’t gone away yet.
“I think it’s absolutely atrocious what they’re trying.”
If you want to assess someone’s credibility and reliability, seeing them on a screen is not the same as being personally present.”
Fellow solicitor Alex Burn, of Burn & McGregor, was equally opposed to virtual trials.
He said: “To me, it’s just a nonsense.
“If you want to assess someone’s credibility and reliability, seeing them on a screen is not the same as being personally present.
“You’ve got the technical difficulties, these things just don’t seem to work.
“I’m against it.
“It’s trying to do justice on the cheap.
“If there’s a backlog, maybe if they didn’t close Stonehaven Sheriff Court, maybe if Peterhead was able to do solemn cases. The powers that be think ‘no, we don’t need that’.
“It’s just wrong.”
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It comes as Sheriff Principal Derek Pyle’s report, Summary Criminal Virtual Trial Pilot: The Way Ahead, was published yesterday.
In it he said: “As a pillar in the effective administration of justice, it is recommended that the aim should be that virtual trials become the default method of judicial determination in summary crime.”
Defence agent Stuart Murray, who is president of the Aberdeen Bar Association, said: “It is disappointing to note Sheriff Pyle’s comments regarding virtual trials and in general, it is not a view that is shared by the Aberdeen Bar Association and its members.
“Whilst our members believe there is a place for virtual courts, it is tempered by the belief that a move by the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service to introduce virtual trials as the norm, is entirely prejudicial to the rights and wellbeing of accused persons.
“It will always be preferable that an accused person is actively and personally participating in proceedings, rather than being physically removed from the trial process and distanced from their lawyer.
“Whilst the Aberdeen Bar Association recognises that the current Covid-19 pandemic has added to stresses placed on the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service, the association is hugely concerned that the promotion of virtual trials as the default format for summary prosecutions, may result in a rush to justice which will diminish the solemnity of proceedings and reduce the public’s confidence in the Scottish Criminal Justice system.
“Aberdeen and Inverness Sheriff Courts were involved in a pilot scheme for virtual trials where in total, three trials took place by way of video link.
“These trials were not complex in nature and the issues in dispute had been refined over the course of the preceding week. This involved a level of preparation by the Crown Office and defence solicitor which would not be sustainable on a day to day basis, if this became the norm.
“In addition, there were technical issues which caused delay to the proceedings, despite their simplicity.”
The Lord President, Lord Carloway said in a statement last week: “The justice system in Scotland, in common with jurisdictions across the globe, has been forced to adapt, learn, respond and innovate within a matter of weeks.
“Virtual courts should, and now will be viewed as core components of the justice system, rather than short term, stop gaps alternatives to appearance in the courtroom.”
Sheriff Principal Pyle is already working with the Crown and defence agents in the Grampian Highland and Islands Sheriffdom to examine the full extent to which virtual trials can be used during the coronavirus pandemic and in the future.
Virtual trials could be rolled out across the country in the autumn.
Scottish Conservative shadow justice secretary and north-east MSP Liam Kerr said: “As we move out of lockdown, it’s vital the wheels of justice get turning again.
“Our courts service is facing a huge backlog in cases which is why the use of technology is important in ensuring this is reduced.
“The expectations of the victims of crime should always be met and virtual proceedings should not in any way put this in jeopardy.”