Scots court situation will ‘get tougher’ due to Covid-19, says Sheriff Principal

There will need to be “innovative and flexible thinking” in courts to support justice in the months ahead, the Sheriff Principal for northern Scotland has said.

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.

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

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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.

The Inverness Justice Centre. Picture: SCTS/PA Wire

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