An Aberdeen solicitor has welcomed steps to reduce trials during the pandemic but fears backlogs will increase due to the delays.
Sheriff and jury trials at Aberdeen Sheriff Court were due to resume this month with officials trying to set up remote jury centres to allow hearings to take place.
But now the majority of summary trials due to be heard in courts will be adjourned which will reduce the overall number of criminal trials taking place during lockdown by up to 75%.
The Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service (SCTS) said all its courts will remain open but it is taking immediate steps to reduce the number of people attending from today.
It said that all criminal jury trials in the High Court and Sheriff Court must continue, focusing on the most serious cases, where people are in custody and where the nature of the alleged offence, including sexual offences and offences involving domestic abuse and children, demands priority.
All new custody cases and summary custody trials, which are conducted without a jury, in the Sheriff Courts and Justice of the Peace courts will proceed.
However, all trials where no-one is in custody will be adjourned, with the provision to accelerate priority or urgent trials.
People will have to wear face coverings in court rooms, where previously they were just required to wear them while moving around the building.
Solicitors are also being asked not to carry out face-to-face meetings with clients in the court building.
Gregor Kelly, a partner with Aberdeen-based Lefevre Litigation, said while the move will lead to more delays, but he understands why the authorities have taken action.
He said: “After a difficult 2020 recovering from a devastating office fire and two Covid related lockdowns we had looked forward to the New Year with some optimism.
“The effective closure of the courts will mean further unwanted delays to court users but it is fully understood that public health and safety is of paramount concern and we will use the time wisely preparing cases for our clients to be dealt with as expeditiously as possible later in the year.”
Peterhead solicitor Iain Jane said: “In the interests of public safety and in particular the safety of all court practitioners and the public who have to attend court this is a welcome step.
“I would also add though that after almost a year it is frustrating that the court does not yet have the proper technological solutions to assist with trying to clear the backlog of cases that exists.”
Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf welcomed the new measures being introduced today.
He said: “I welcome the Lord President’s decisive action, which balances the interests of justice with the very serious public health challenges presented by the new variant of the coronavirus (Covid-19).
“I am acutely aware of the impact that trial delays have upon victims, witnesses and the accused, as well as on professionals working in the justice system.
“Nonetheless, it is clear that all parts of society must step up our efforts to help safeguard health, protect the NHS and save lives.
“While the very concerning rates of infection, hospitalisation and deaths present us with arguably at least as challenging a position as we faced last March, today the justice system and in particular Scotland’s courts are logistically and operationally in a much better position than in the spring when a full shutdown of criminal trials was needed.”
An SCTS statement said: “The position across the country as a whole has changed over the last week, requiring us to review our position.
“On Friday we discussed the rapid spread of the new Covid-19 variant with senior public health officials in the Scottish Government.
“With their advice and the recognition that we have taken all the right steps in making our buildings safe, we have determined that we should focus on the most essential business to reduce travel, overall footfall and physical interaction in our courts and therefore support the public health response at this critical time.”
But the boss of Victim Support Scotland is worried about the impact on those who have suffered as a result of criminal behaviour.
Kate Wallace, Chief Executive of Victim Support Scotland, comments: “We recognise that we are in the middle of a public health crisis and that measures must be put in place to protect people from entering court buildings.
“The announcement will, however, have a huge impact on some of Scotland’s most vulnerable victims who will be left with a lot of uncertainty as to when their trials will go ahead. This will be hard news to swallow for many of Scotland’s victims and witnesses who were preparing to go to court.
“Everyone in the justice system must do everything within their power to ensure that victims and witnesses do not face further traumatisation as a result of trials being adjourned.
“We are currently working with colleagues at the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal (COPFS) and the Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service to improve support and communications with victims and witnesses affected by this development.”
“Providing practical and emotional support to people affected by crime is imperative at this time. Victim Support Scotland will continue to provide our services to everyone impacted by crime, regardless of if their trial has been adjourned or is still going ahead.
“Our support also includes court familiarisation visits, for those who are apprehensive about attending trials, and access to the Victims’ Fund for people concerned about their safety or in immediate financial hardship as the result of a crime.”