Aberdeen has been “left in the lurch” over restarting jury trials, a top sheriff has claimed.
Jury trials have been on hold since the start of the coronavirus lockdown in March, and only recently resumed in the central belt for high court cases with the use of cinemas as remote jury centres.
But Aberdeen Sheriff Court is still no clearer on when jury trials will resume in the Granite City.
Yesterday Sheriff Graham Buchanan blasted the situation, stating those involved in courts in the north-east have been left “wondering what on earth is going on”.
He said: “There are no issues whatsoever with the central belt, they can have their jury trials, but up in the north-east and Aberdeen we’re left in the lurch, waiting and waiting and wondering what on earth is going on.
“I’d hope after what I’ve said about how unsatisfactory this is that there will be some action taken to ensure jury trials are able to run in Aberdeen from hopefully February next year.
“If I were to continue first diets for some two months then it’s inconceivable that we won’t know what is happening by the beginning of January.
“What strikes me as just so unsatisfactory is in the central belt in busy courts in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Hamilton, Paisley, they’re able to fix jury trials and know what’s happening. We don’t have a clue in Aberdeen.”
Defence solicitor Mike Monro, a partner at Mackie and Dewar, was in court when Sheriff Buchanan made the comments, and said he thought the situation was “disgraceful”.
He said: “I was in front of Sheriff Buchanan earlier this week when we were discussing similar matters and it is disgraceful that we’re going to have a complete 12 month period, if not longer, without a jury trial taking place in Grampian, Highland and Islands.
“He’s absolutely right, facilities are being made available in the central belt, but we can’t get jury trials up and running because they’ve made no arrangements for that to be done.
“There’s cases now where it goes back to 2018 for the alleged offence, and the trial is not until 2021, perhaps late summer. How can that be fair to an accused and how can that be fair to crown witnesses? They have had this situation whereby they know they’re going to be called to give evidence in court, but it could be two or three years down the line.
“That cannot be fair on anyone.
“We know what the virus has done, but there seems to be a total lack of thinking as to, Aberdeen being the third city in Scotland, nothing seems to have moved forward with regard to it.
“They’re hoping to start jury trials again in February. The last jury trial in Aberdeen would have been late February into the beginning of March this year, so that’s 12 months without a jury trial taking place.
“When Covid first really hit us it was absolutely right that everything was closed down, but here’s been gradual reopening, we know there’s been high court trials in Glasgow and Edinburgh by using cinemas. I’ve said before, what’s wrong with the Music Hall? That would be the best jury box in Scotland, the balcony of the Music Hall.
“The sheriff is absolutely right. Hopefully, notice is taken of it.”
Fellow solicitor Liam Mcallister, a partner with Lefevre Litigation, said: “I agree with the sheriff’s frustrations and agree with the sentiments he makes because ultimately everyone in Aberdeen is working as hard as they possibly can to get things back up and running and wants to see that sooner rather than later.
“I completely agree with the sheriffs desires and frustration that we don’t seem to have the certainty that they have in the central belt. Everyone in Aberdeen will fight as hard as they can to get things up and running.
“The court service deserves credit for getting us to a stage where we can start to hopefully get to that stage, but good for him for standing up for Aberdeen.
“I think it’s important that Aberdeen Bar, Aberdeen fiscal service, court staff and sheriffs are all singing off the same hymn sheet and we’re all determined to get things up and running as soon as possible and working to that end, so it’s good to hear that the sheriff is raising these matters in open court and articulating his frustrations.”
A spokesman for the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service (SCTS) said: “A working group, chaired by Sheriff Principal Craig Turnbull, exists to oversee the restart of sheriff and jury trials.
“At this stage, venues for remote jury centres to serve the Sheriffdoms of Glasgow and Strathkelvin and Lothian and Borders have been confirmed and will be operational later this year allowing trials to restart in those areas.
“At the moment we are seeking to conclude a venue contract which will allow the restart of Aberdeen sheriff and jury trials in the new year.
“Until then it is not possible to release trial dates for Aberdeen Sheriff Court.
“The Working Group which brings together those from across the justice sector is developing a model that will allow trials to proceed fairly, effectively and safely across Scotland.”