Innovative thinking needed to support justice in pandemic

All new trials across Scotland have been suspended due to the pandemic and many courts are closed, with cases before sheriffs taking place in 10 hub courts across the country.

Sheriff Principal Derek Pyle said the situation in courts has been tough and is “probably going to get tougher” in the coming months, with coronavirus likely to be around for some time.

In Grampian and the Highlands and Islands, cases are being heard at Aberdeen and Inverness Sheriff and Justice of the Peace Courts, with video conferencing being used to connect people in different places.

Last week, Inverness Sheriff Court heard the case about Home Farm care home on Skye after Social Care and Social Work Improvement Scotland launched legal action against its operator, HC-One.

Sheriff Principal Pyle said that dealing with the Skye care home case in that way enabled journalists from all over the world to link in, including one from the New York Times, while in many cases members of the public can easily join in to listen to proceedings.

He added that he has always regarded the Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service (SCTS) as a “forward-looking organisation” which has been adapting to meet the new challenges.

“As has been happening all over the world, everyone is having to adapt quickly to a new world where technology and remote working are the future,” he said.

“The courts have made remarkable progress in just a matter of weeks. We now have state-of-the- art video conferencing facilities in Inverness and will have the same in Aberdeen when we are ready to get started again once lockdown is gradually relaxed.”

He added: “The courts were set up for video links. We have used that technology for many years, but those links were generally one to one, intended to enable a remote or vulnerable witness to join proceedings.

“Introducing the WebEx system has allowed us to do so much more and offers us the opportunity in the months ahead to revolutionise the way court business, whether criminal or civil, is dealt with.

“When courts reopen, social distancing requirements will mean we can’t return to business as it used to be. Some virtual courts and online hearings will remain in place.”

 Sheriff Principal Pyle said SCTS is working extremely hard to meet the challenges while ensuring public safety

He said co-operation by all court users is one of the strengths of the Highlands and Islands and Grampian, and it has been displayed again and again over the last couple of months by everyone from sheriffs and court staff to prosecutors, solicitors and police officers.

“All have played their part in keeping the show on the road,” he said.

“It’s been tough and is probably going to get tougher in the coming months, but I’m confident that all will rise to the challenge.

“Courts and court users will be living with coronavirus for some time and that will require innovative and flexible thinking as well as commitment to make sure we continue to support justice in our communities.”