LJG response to Coronavirus Bill

The Lord Justice General has made a statement in response to the Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill introduced in the Scottish Parliament today.

In his statement, the Lord Justice General said: "The Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill introduced in the Scottish Parliament today contains provisions relating to the justice system. Some of these measures impact on long-standing and well-established elements of the system designed, in normal times, to form part of a suite of protections and safeguards for all those participating in, or affected by, the administration of justice. They are not to be altered lightly.

"These are not normal times. My overriding concern is to ensure that, in these extreme circumstances, we can continue to preserve the fair, effective, and efficient administration of justice, in the hope that we can facilitate the return to normal operations as early as is possible. 

"The most noteworthy proposal in the Bill is that which would allow for solemn trials to be heard without a jury; with the verdict determined instead by a judge or sheriff. This would represent a significant, if temporary, change to the way the courts conduct business.

"I would like to set out the rationale for this, from the perspective of the judiciary and courts. We will be facing a monumental backlog of solemn criminal trials once the current restrictions are lifted and trials can recommence. Unless action is taken to mitigate the impact of this, there will be substantial delays in bringing accused persons to trial. These are likely to stretch into years rather than months. The delays will be unprecedented in Scottish legal history. This will have many adverse impacts, including uncertainty for the accused, complainers and witnesses. Such delays will have a highly disruptive effect on their lives, and potentially on the wider system.

"The scale of the potential backlog is very daunting. At a conservative estimate, the backlog will be over 1000 trials, on the optimistic assumption that the restrictions are lifted by the start of the summer. Before the current crisis began, measures were already being put in place to help the High Court process an unprecedented number of new indictments each year. The increasing levels of prosecution would have stretched the Court’s capacity to its limits. This new challenge threatens to overwhelm the system. Jury citation will prove difficult and take longer, in a country recovering from high sickness rates, schools and public services re-commencing, business recovering after lengthy staff absences and people taking missed holidays after lengthy restrictions.

"Anything that can be done, therefore, to address the forthcoming backlog will help avert a critical logjam in the system in the period of recovery once restrictions are lifted. Of course some form of time limitation on this measure is required, although it would be needed for all of the period during which the country recovers from the full effects of the current suspension of trial business in the courts.  

"Ultimately, Parliament must decide how it wishes to maintain public confidence in our justice system and allows the courts to continue to administer justice effectively. This means balancing the legitimate concerns about removing juries for a time-limited period against the potential for excessive delay and disruption of the system that the backlog will cause. My concern is that the potential delay and disruption, if mitigatory measures are not taken, may be so severe that it will compromise the effective administration of justice for some years to come."

Media Notes:

This is a Parliamentary Bill introduced by the Scottish Ministers and it will be for them to draft any regulations further to the Bill’s passage, including when and how the measure discussed in the statement might be used.

The Lord Justice General has explained that “ultimately Parliament must decide how it wishes to maintain public confidence in our justice system and allows the courts to continue to administer justice effectively”.

Contact : judicialcomms@scotcourts.gov.uk