Lord Carloway calls for legislation to address court backlog
Scotland’s most senior judge has called for new legislation to address the growing backlog of court cases. The Lord President, Lord Carloway, said measures proposed so far had simply been “tinkering at the edges” of a major problem. He warned that if things continued as they had been, there could be a backlog of 3,000 jury trials in the high and sheriff courts by next March. Some cases have now resumed but social distancing has reduced capacity to 30%. The Scottish government said a working group had been set up to consider the practical and operational requirements needed to resume jury trials and that it was working to explore options. In a strongly-worded statement, Lord Carloway paid tribute to the court service for the speed at which it had developed digitally-based techniques of working, but he said new legislation was needed. He said that while progress had been made in conducting civil cases and non-jury trials remotely, proceedings that required a jury had proved more difficult. “This is not the time for a defence of tradition,” he said. “The cry of ‘it’s aye been’ cannot prevail. We have to seize the momentum and opportunity to respond to the particular challenge.” The first jury citations since March have now been issued, but jurors will have to sit in more than one courtroom to observe the proceedings. Lord Carloway said this would reduce trial capacity to 30% of normal, “We need to stop thinking about tinkering at the edges,” he said. “There is a keenness across the justice sector to find ways to address the serious backlog of solemn cases. I have been absolutely clear that I will not contemplate any measure to aid recovery which might compromise the basic principle of a fair trial. “The fact remains, however, that the requirements, for physical distancing and self-isolation in order to protect public health, are extraordinary inhibitors on the conduct of all kinds of court business.” He said he had “no doubt” that legislation would be needed to address some of the technical constraints. “None of the measures proposed by others have so far come close to offering practical answers to what are real difficulties,” he said. “They are simply tinkering at the margins of a major problem which, as long as social distancing and self-isolation are in place, requires a political solution.” Lady Dorrian, the Lord Justice Clerk, is currently leading a working group on restarting jury trials.