Scots courts face soaring backlog of criminal trails

The backlog of criminal trials in Scotland's court system has soared during the Coronavirus crisis with more 30,000 cases now waiting to go before a judge, it has emerged.
Some jury trials have been taking place in Scots cinemasSome jury trials have been taking place in Scots cinemas
Some jury trials have been taking place in Scots cinemas

The number of "scheduled” trials has increased from about 18,000 at the start of the pandemic to 30,596, according to the most recently published statistics up until the end of September.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought widespread disruption to Scotland's justice system with the need for social distancing among jurors resulting in trials being shifted to makeshift venues around the country such as cinemas.

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Latest statistics published by the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service this month show scheduled trials have increased by 38% in the last quarter.

The number of trials scheduled at the end of June was 22,437 – but had risen to 30,596 by September. As the pandemic took off scheduled trials at the end of March stood at around 18,000, meaning a 40% rise during the crisis.

The Tories say that backlog is down to Scottish Government shortcomings.

Tory justice spokesman Liam Kerr said: “This huge backlog of trials continues to rise and is yet more proof of an SNP government letting down victims.

"An increase of nearly 40% in three months is very concerning.

“The SNP cannot use the pandemic as an excuse. Figures show that even before Covid, trials were backing up. As the saying goes, justice delayed is justice denied.

“The fact the justice secretary has not seen fit to take the necessary action pre-pandemic, as shown by the lack of correspondence on the issue, is unacceptable.

“For far too long the SNP have treated the courts and legal profession with little respect and value. The endgame will be fewer young people going into the legal profession, which could have dire consequences for victims of crime and the legal system generally.”

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The Scottish Government had unveiled controversial plans earlier in the year to suspend many criminal trials during the pandemic and allow cases to be heard in front of a judge in an effort to minimise the prospect of a major backlog building up. But this met with an angry backlash from opposition MSPs and lawyers who said it undermined the centuries-old principle of trial by jury at the heart of the Scottish justice system. The plans were subsequently dropped.

The latest figures show that more than half of the backlog is pre-pandemic. At the end of the 2019/20 financial year, the number of scheduled trials stood at 18,319.

The Tories also say that a Freedom of Information response they obtained from the Scottish Government last month shows that there was no correspondence of any kind regarding “policy solutions implemented or discussed to reduce the backlog of the number of court cases in Scottish courts.”

Jury trials have been taking place at the Odeon Cinemas at Fort Kinnaird in Edinburgh and Braehead near Glasgow after a working group chaired by the Lord Justice Clerk, Lady Dorrian recommended the use of remote "jury centres" outwith court buildings.

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