High Court trials to resume in new format

High Court trials will restart on 20 July in Edinburgh and 21 July in Glasgow in new formats designed to ensure a safe and secure process for all involved, in compliance with public health guidelines on physical distancing and hygiene.

The trials have been arranged following discussions of the Restarting Solemn Trials Working Group which is chaired by the Lord Justice Clerk, Lady Dorrian, and includes representatives from across the justice sector. Solemn trials refer to more serious cases in the High Court and in the sheriff courts.

“Court staff have been working extremely hard in recent weeks to arrange for jury trials to recommence, greatly assisted by interested parties from across the justice sector,” said Lady Dorrian. “The challenges in conducting a 15-person jury trial in a physically distanced environment cannot be underestimated and I would like to thank all those involved for their commitment to ensure that justice is delivered safely.”

On the first day of the trial, each court will ballot 15 jurors plus five or more substitutes without any potential jurors requiring to be present in the courtroom. The court will then adjourn and the clerk will notify the selected jurors to attend the following day, when they will be sworn in and evidence taking will commence. Physical distancing measures are in place across all court buildings to ensure the safety of all participants, including in jury deliberation rooms.

The Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service (SCTS) has published an information pamphlet, “Jury Trials - Your Safety is our Priority” and an information sheet for jurors detailing the measures in place to ensure the safety of all parties including the witnesses, jurors, accused, judiciary, lawyers, and staff. 

In the High Court in Glasgow, there will be three rooms in use: the trial courtroom, with the jury in the gallery seating area; a separate room for jury deliberations; and a media viewing room. 

In Edinburgh there will be two court rooms in use. The trial court room, with seating for media in the gallery, and the jury will view the trial remotely from a separate courtroom. 

Earlier this year, the Lord Justice General, Lord Carloway, announced that Scottish Government guidelines on physical distancing meant that it would not be possible for jury trials to proceed. Following some easing of the restrictions, it has been challenging but now possible to restart jury trials. Lord Carloway asked the Lord Justice Clerk, Lady Dorrian, to chair the cross-party Working Group to consider the practical difficulties of restarting solemn trials, with an initial focus on using the existing legislative framework.

The Group is continuing to assess and develop ways to allow more solemn trials to take place in both the High Court and the sheriff courts, including identifying if there are any changes required to legislation and to rules of procedure to allow more use of digital solutions where appropriate.

Membership of the Group includes representatives of the judiciary; Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service; Faculty of Advocates; Law Society of Scotland; Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service; Rape Crisis Scotland; and the Scottish Government.

Extensive risk assessments have taken place across Scotland to allow all court buildings to re-open and a guide for court and tribunal users has been published. 

Since lockdown began some business has incrementally moved into virtual courts including civil and criminal appeal hearings, Court of Session hearings, personal injury cases and a range of sheriff court civil cases. Virtual summary criminal trial pilots were successfully held in Inverness and Aberdeen and will be rolled out across other areas.