First remote jury centre in the UK goes live in Edinburgh

The first remote jury centre in the UK will go live on Monday with high court proceedings beamed live onto movie screens in Edinburgh.

In a ground-breaking innovation for the Scottish justice system – and in a bid to ease a growing COVID-19 backlog of criminal cases – jurors will watch trials from rows of socially-distanced seats at the Odeon cinema complex in Fort Kinnaird.

The centre has been set up following a recommendation from the ‘restarting solemn trials working group’, chaired by the Lord Justice Clerk, Lady Dorrian, which was made up of representatives from across the justice sector.

The group recommended to the Lord President, Lord Carloway – Scotland’s most senior judge – that remote jury centres established afar from court buildings could allow high court trials to operate at pre-COVID-19 business levels.

Various options were scoped out as a possible candidates but cinemas were chosen owing to the high level of digital infrastructure already set up in movie complexes. The Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service was handed £5.5 million by government to work out ways of staging trials whilst lockdown restrictions applied.

A cinema complex can provide, in a single building, a number of spacious and soundproofed auditoria that can comfortably accommodate 15 physically distanced jurors, combined with state of the art, secure technology.

They are also able to provide accommodation for the entire six-month contract – with the possibility of extension – along with ‘resilience arrangements’.

As part of the contract, the courts will have exclusive access to the jury centre Monday to Friday. Courtrooms have been fitted out with the cameras and technology necessary to broadcast the trials to the screens and to receive the video wall of jurors into the courtroom.

On the cinema screens, jurors will be able to see the judge, the accused and witnesses – as well as the legal representatives – split into ‘quadrants’.

The first trials using the jury centre at Fort Kinnaird are set for to take place from Monday at the High Court sitting in Edinburgh and Livingston.

Other trials are set for 12 October at the High Court in Glasgow using the jury centre at Braehead, Renfrewshire. Information about these cases will be available on the court rolls published on the Scottish Courts and Tribunals website.

Tim Barraclough, Director of the Judicial Office for Scotland, said: “The key priority remains to provide justice in a safe environment. The restarting solemn trials working group, chaired by Lady Dorrian, was greatly assisted by representatives from across the justice and third sectors, and thanks goes out to them all for their commitment to ensure that justice is delivered safely. It has been an excellent collaborative effort; and the SCTS staff have been working extremely hard to ensure that the vision is delivered.”

Ronnie Renucci QC, Vice-Dean of Faculty and the President of the Scottish Criminal Bar Association, member of the Working Group, said: “The use of cinemas as remote jury centres is an innovative and unique solution to the problem of conducting jury trials during the present restrictions. More importantly it is a workable solution that allows jury trials to proceed at a sustainable level, which should prevent the present backlog rising further. The SCTS are to be commended for their efforts in putting the vision of Lady Dorrian’s recommendations into practice and the Scottish Government for providing the means to make it possible.”

He added: “The Scottish Criminal Bar welcomes and applauds the vibrant return to full scale criminal trials that the innovative jury centre solution represents. Remote jury centres break new ground and will be of the keenest interest to other nations wrestling with the havoc wreaked by Covid on adversarial justice systems around the world.”

Crown Agent David Harvie, Chief Executive of the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, added: “The opening of these jury centres is an important step which will allow for the number of High Court trials held to come back up to pre-pandemic levels.

“Work across the justice system on tackling the accumulated case load continues, and innovative measures such as this will bring real benefits for people who are waiting for cases to come to trial.”

This is the first stage of what is expected to be further use of remote jury centres. What type of venue and where is still under consideration. The remote jury centres are initially in place and funded by the Scottish Government for six months, with the option to extend for a longer period. This will be reviewed continually in line with changes to public health guidance and physical distancing requirements.

The next step is to consider how the remote jury centre model can be extended to include sheriff court jury trials.

Balloting the jury will be done in the courtroom in advance without the jurors being present. Only the 15 jurors balloted, plus a small number of substitutes, will arrive at the jury centre for the trial. Each jury will be supported by a court officer, and each remote jury room will be supported by technical specialists to ensure continuity of proceedings.

In line with government guidance, and following detailed risk assessments, numerous safety measures are in place, including sanitising stations and floor and wall markings.

Posters will also feature throughout the centre reminding jurors and staff to both observe physical distancing, and wash hands regularly, with additional cleaning measures carried out throughout the day. The jury centre ventilation systems use air handling units to extract stale air and replace it with a supply of clean, fresh and filtered air.

Plans to increase the use of technology were established well before the current coronavirus situation. The courts were already using video access for custody links and capturing evidence by video before a trial takes place in order to prevent children and vulnerable people from having to attend court. The courts have continued to expand this technology to enable virtual hearings in a range of different types of case.

Since lockdown began, business has incrementally moved into virtual courts including civil and criminal appeal hearings; Court of Session hearings, personal injury cases; a range of sheriff court civil and appeal cases; and virtual summary criminal trials.