The Covid pandemic has seen an abrupt halt to the criminal justice system. The UK has tried, in many ways, to be creative in their approach towards how best to get criminal trials moving, but unfortunately it falls short of justice in a number of ways. In January 2021, there were 54,000 unheard Crown Court cases in England and the number of criminal trials held in Scotland dropped by 75%.
Following Lord Carloway’s announcement in January, all Sheriff Court and Justice of the Peace Court trials were administratively postponed. In the interest of the public safety there is the need to restrict the number of people entering Court. Whilst this is entirely understandable and necessary, there seems to be no alternative offered apart from postponing the cases. With technology continually developing and becoming more advanced throughout the pandemic, there is a need for the criminal justice system to implement something to tackle the unheard cases.
One of the risks that comes with postponing cases is that witnesses may not be able to recall what happened as it was so long ago and where there has been no engagement with the case for quite some time. Additionally, there is a risk to those working in the criminal justice system as there is uncertainty in the future as to how matters will be conducted, and client management and securing legal aid is impossible in those circumstances.
Scotland established the UK’s first remote jury centres and from September 2020 they resumed the most serious High Court and then Sheriff solemn trials in a covid-secure way. This was instrumental in reigniting the justice system after the first lockdown. The technology and advancements in the criminal justice system have come on greatly since March 2020 and hopefully the STCS are able to develop a way that the remaining 75% of cases can be heard without continued delay.
The civil courts remain open at present. Remote proofs have been conducted successfully and matters have progressed almost as normal after the first lockdown. This has been a huge success in Scotland to keep the civil justice system going. After the first lockdown, there has been little delay in the civil side of things and firms such as Thompsons Solicitors have been able to continue fighting for justice for their clients. This is a testament to the Scottish legal system and their ability to adapt to change.
Hopefully there will be some adaptation and new ideas to cope with the criminal justice system. The reduction of cases being heard will impact the system greatly and create a huge backlog which will prevent cases being heard for longer and longer. There needs to be serious consideration given to how we get past this in the criminal system and an active effort made to combat the continuing delays.
Blog by Jenny Scott, Solicitor