Solicitors concerned about virtual custody court in wake of pilot

Solicitors are concerned and dissatisfied with a virtual custody court pilot, a survey has found.

Social distancing and safety measures inside Court 1 at the High Court in Edinburgh
Social distancing and safety measures inside Court 1 at the High Court in Edinburgh

Five courts were piloted in Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Falkirk, Glasgow and Saltcoats to allow prosecutions to continue during the Covid-19 crisis, with custody courts the first step when a person accused of a crime submits their plea.

An online survey of Law Society of Scotland members found 81 per cent were either dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the client consultation process.

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The majority of defence agents (78 per cent) said they experienced problems in obtaining sight of papers or arranging client consultation, such as not being able to consult privately or being unable to identify if the client was vulnerable and needed additional support.

Amanda Millar, Law Society of Scotland president, said: “The coronavirus pandemic has created enormous challenges, with significant implications for the administration of justice.

“There has been huge effort to get courts back up and running while taking all necessary steps to minimise the risk of infection.

“There is a role for technology in the justice system and there may be some potential advantages to virtual custody courts beyond the immediate need for Covid-19 safety measures.”

She added: “However, the survey findings have highlighted a range of practical problems arising from the pilot, as well as issues resulting from the different approaches adopted by the pilot courts.

“These will have to be addressed before there can be any plans for a further roll-out.”

The survey received 144 responses, which the body said represents 10.4 per cent of solicitors who are registered for criminal and/or criminal legal aid business in Scotland.

Solicitors were surveyed between 30 June and 9 July to gain a better understanding of their experience of virtual appearances which took place by telephone or video conference.

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More than half (58 per cent) indicated a preference for video over telephone with many suggesting the technology did not work well.

The Law Society has called for clarity from the Scottish Government, Police Scotland, the courts and Crown Office on any expansion or longer-term plans to keep the virtual custody courts.

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said “further monitoring and evaluation of these pilots is necessary” before any final decisions are taken on future plans.

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