Holding virtual trials in summary cases should become the default position, the Sheriff Principal for the north of Scotland has recommended.
Derek Pyle advises rolling out virtual trials for such cases – which are decided by a sheriff sitting without a jury – across Scotland in autumn.
The recommendations come in a new report on virtual trials held in Aberdeen and Inverness as the court system adapts to the coronavirus pandemic.
Scotland held its first virtual trial in Inverness on June 9.
Lawyers and witnesses attended remotely, while the accused appeared from a video facility at court and the sheriff presided from chambers.
In the report, Mr Pyle said due to social distancing sheriff courts will largely be needed for solemn trials – before a jury – by autumn, and there is expected to be some 1,750 such cases awaiting trial by the end of August.
He said: “Even if there were no social distancing rules, it would probably be a number of years before solemn business would return to normal levels – and that on the basis of the additional use of sheriff court buildings.
“The use of virtual summary trial courts is a necessity, not an option.”
The report notes there are currently 17,000 summary trials fixed, just 3,000 fewer than the average number in a whole year.
It recommends: “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.”
Steps are currently being taken to extend the use of virtual trials in Inverness and Aberdeen, with other courts under consideration in Dundee, Falkirk, Hamilton and Paisley.
The report found the reaction of those taking part in the three pilot trials has been positive, apart from minor issues with video signal.
The Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service said in line with the report recommendation that virtual trials are rolled out across the country in the autumn to allow time for training, discussions are now under way with Sheriffs Principal, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, the Law Society of Scotland and Victim Support Scotland.