Jury trials are set to start again in Aberdeen next month for the first time in almost a year – with the help of a city centre cinema.
Members of juries will be seated at the Vue cinema, which is only yards from the court buildings in Aberdeen city centre, and will watch proceedings on the big screen.
Trials at both High Court and sheriff and jury levels are now set to return in the city from February 15, the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service (SCTS).
Screens will also be erected in the courtroom to show the jury so solicitors and others involved can see them.
David Fraser, executive director of court operations, said: “We recognise the concern and impact on the accused, victims and witnesses of any further delay in jury trials. The remote jury centres were designed to operate during Covid, ensuring jury trials can continue while restrictions are in place.
“The jury centres are large ventilated spaces, with physical distancing for jurors at all times and are fully equipped with all the necessary precautions of face coverings, hand washing facilities and sanitisers.
“While we know that there are concerns at this time, we have strictly followed Public Health Scotland’s guidance to make these new centres as safe as possible. Having juries remote from courts enables physically distanced trials to proceed with the same health, safety and security measures available to all court users.
“Our videos available on our website illustrate well all the measures jurors, witnesses and participants can expect and we would urge those called to serve as jurors or as witnesses to attend. Restrictions on travelling or attendance do not apply to those attending our courts or remote jury centres.”
A spokeswoman for Vue said: “We’re working alongside the SCTS, in line with Scottish Government guidelines, to support jury services as they resume over the coming months.”
The move has been welcomed by north-east solicitors, who had spoken of concerns over the length of time taken to arrange for jury trials to be safely held in Aberdeen, and about the backlog of cases being created.
Stuart Murray, president of the Aberdeen Bar Association, said: “Obviously we welcome the return of the High Court to Aberdeen, as well as the resumption of sheriff and jury trials.
“It’s been of some concern that jury trials have taken so long to get back up and running, especially with accused waiting to go on trial while remanded, as well as the delay caused to witnesses and complainers.
“The bar still have some concerns as to whether or not these trials will successfully run as I’m aware from speaking to other bar associations that there have been significant difficulties getting jurors to attend at court in order to allow trials to proceed.
“I’m hopeful that that won’t impact on the ability of trials to proceed in Aberdeen. No doubt the SCTS will take the appropriate steps to ensure jurors turn up for court.”
Gregor Kelly, a partner at Lefevre Litigation, said: “All those who believe in a fair and equitable system of justice will welcome the return of jury trials with open arms.
“It is a cornerstone of our democratic society that those charged with the most serious crimes have a right to be tried by a jury of their peers and those balloted to serve on juries should be assured that a great deal of thought has gone into making it safe to do so.”
Alex Burn, of Burn and McGregor, was more cautious and said he would prefer if jury members could be present in person.
He said: “I think it’s a relief to people who are remanded in custody, because undoubtedly some of these people are innocent and remanded in custody. It will be a huge relief to them.
“We’ll just have to wait and see. My view is in jury trials I like them to be present.
“We won’t know until we start doing them how it’s going to pan out, but if you’re looking at somebody in real life or looking at somebody on film, you don’t get the same feel, that’s the impression I get.”
Mike Monro, of Mackie and Dewar, said he echoed Mr Murray’s concerns about jurors attending, but added: “I think there’s no doubt at all that the set up for jurors is going to be absolutely safe for them and that they should have nothing to worry about because it’s been done successfully around other parts of Scotland.
“There’s no doubt at all that the sooner we get running with jury trials the better.
“There’s been no sheriff and jury trials in Aberdeen since February of last year. The backlog is quite horrendous.
“The law was changed so somebody can be remanded now for 320 days before coming to trial. It was 140 days before.
“We’re relieved that we’re going to get up and running with jury trials at last.
“Obviously there’s plenty of space for the jurors in any of the cinemas.
“We also have to adapt the courtrooms to allow for the 15 screens of each of the jurors.
“We’ve got to be able to see the jurors at all times to make sure perhaps they’re not falling asleep – which has happened to me in jury trials in the past.”
For more information about attending court, visit scotcourts.gov.uk/coming-to-court/jurors