Fears have been raised about people “playing the Covid card” to avoid jury duty.
What would have been one of the first juries trials in Aberdeen in almost a year, has had to be postponed – because not enough jurors turned up.
Sandy Mundie had been due to stand trial this week and become one of the first accused to appear before a jury in Aberdeen in almost a year, but the case was forced to be put off until April – because not enough jurors turned up.
But, while the court itself was ready for the trial to begin, the remote jury centre at the Vue cinema was sitting empty.
Jury trials have returned this week in Aberdeen after an extended hiatus owing to the coronavirus pandemic, which caused courts to all but grind to a halt when restrictions were first imposed back in March 2020.
But not all of them.
Of the 250 members of the public cited for jury duty, just 29 or 30 attended, meaning there were only enough people to run one trial.
Mundie, 34, of Wales Street, Aberdeen, is accused of assaulting a man by striking him on the head and body with a knife or similar implement to his severe injury, permanent disfigurement and to the danger of life.
He is also accused of assaulting a woman, and of possessing a knife.
The alleged offences, to which he pleaded not guilty, are said to have happened on June 15 2019 at Keystore Express on Grampian Road and a flat on Glenbervie Road in Aberdeen.
When the case called at Aberdeen Sheriff Court this week, defence agent Mike Monro said: “A total of 250 jurors were cited, of which we only had 29, maybe 30 attending.”
Mr Monro said a colleague had encountered similar difficulties in Glasgow, where just 40 jurors turned up out of 400 cited.
He added: “It’s absolutely astonishing.
“We’re sitting here, ready to start a trial, with an empty remote jury centre.
“Despite the best endeavours of the new set-up, unless the public help us out by coming to court in accordance with their jury citations, we are going to be in this situation.
“Hopefully this is a situation that won’t occur again.
“We’re in a situation where my friend the fiscal depute is going to be inviting the court to adjourn the trial.
“I have gone through all that with the accused and he has no difficulty with that.”
Fiscal depute Felicity Merson said: “I think, given that it is a jury issue, it would be that this trial requires to be adjourned.”
Sheriff Philip Mann confirmed: “There being no jury available, I’ll adjourn this trial to the date that’s been identified.”
He fixed another trial diet for late April.
Another two trials that had been due to run during the first week were adjourned due to a lack of time.
‘They might play the Covid card’
One lawyer, who did not want to be named, said: “People just won’t turn up. They’ll say ‘I’m not exposing myself to this’, ‘I don’t want to be in that situation’.
“They might play the Covid card. They’ll just say ‘I’m not fit, I’m not able to, I’ve got symptoms’.
“Ordinarily people do turn up in the main, if it’s done in the conventional sense, but given the opportunity not to, they’re remote from the sheriff and the majesty of the court and maybe take a more laissez-faire attitude to their obligations to turn up.
“That’s what I think, but there’s no scientific basis for me saying that.
“It might be an expensive operation for not much return.
“I think we’ll run into a lot more of these difficulties as we go ahead.”
Jurors ‘should be assured that it is safe’
Solicitor Gregor Kelly, a partner with Lefevre Litigation, reassured people the cinema setup is safe.
He said: “It was disappointing to hear that a jury trial had to be adjourned earlier in the week because of insufficient jurors.
“We toured the remote Jury centre last week and were impressed with the setup.
“Those called for jury service should be assured that it is safe. A great deal of time and investment has gone into looking after everyone.
“The trial that ran this week was efficient and after a while all the lawyers adapted to their new surroundings.
“I understand potential jurors may be reticent but they have no reason to be concerned.”
‘Perhaps people feel the obligation isn’t as pressing’
Defence agent Alex Burn, of Burn and McGregor, added: “Because they’re so remote from the actual physicality of being present before a judge or sheriff in the court, perhaps people feel the obligation isn’t as pressing.”
‘Very important civic duty’
Following the adjournment, a Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service (SCTS) spokesman confirmed there had been a “lower than anticipated number of responses from eligible jurors to their citation”, meaning there were not enough to ballot for more than one trial.
He added: “We do understand people may have concerns over jury duty at this time especially when there are other pressures including childcare but we would urge those cited to take part in the interest of justice and those accused, victims and witnesses who rely on people undertaking this very important civic duty.
“Those who have already taken part in jury trials this year have offered good feedback”
Among the feedback received, one juror said: “Covid protection was well set out plenty of signs and hand sanitiser.
“Was a bit apprehensive before I went but was really impressed and felt very safe. Staff were very helpful and explained everything really well.
“I think using the cinema for the jury is a really good idea and I would feel very comfortable if I ever had to attend jury service again.”
Another commented: “I have been at a cinema for jury duty this week and would like to say how well everything was handled.
“From the people at the door who were very nice and helpful. The person who was our main point of contact, was helpful and courteous to a fault.
“We were looked after in every aspect. The instructions we were given were clear for everything to understand. You are doing a great job in very difficult circumstances.”
The SCTS spokesman added: “Anyone cited can watch the jurors video which will explain all the Covid secure measures involved in the jury centre arrangements”