Domestic abuse cases to be prioritised in Aberdeen virtual hearings
Sheriff Principal Derek Pyle of Grampian, Highland and Islands Sheriffdom has announced a major initiative on the development of virtual criminal trials. From May the majority of domestic abuse summary trials in Aberdeen Sheriff Court will be conducted virtually, with only the accused person and their solicitor having to be present in the court premises.
This follows a pilot project which was conducted last year. It will allow up to nine trials to take place each week, which would otherwise not be able to proceed because of Covid restrictions and also offers the opportunity for a national roll out to provide much needed additional capacity to assist in dealing with the trial backlog post pandemic.
“This is an important step in finding imaginative ways to deal with the huge backlog in summary crime caused by the pandemic. It will improve the experience for witnesses, but crucially the court will ensure that the rights of the accused persons are protected during the trials and at the same time gathering evidence on what works and what does not work in the virtual world.”
Sheriff Principal Pyle said, “This is an important step in finding imaginative ways to deal with the huge backlog in summary crime caused by the pandemic. It will improve the experience for witnesses, but crucially the court will ensure that the rights of the accused persons are protected during the trials and at the same time gathering evidence on what works and what does not work in the virtual world. I am grateful for the willingness of the local defence solicitors, prosecutors and sheriff court staff, as well as Victim Support Scotland, to support this initiative.”
Summary trials have been on hold since January due to the impact of lockdown on court proceedings, but this initiative will allow domestic abuse hearings to resume with specific support arrangements in place, provided by VSS for civilian witnesses, both prosecution and defence, to give evidence remotely.
Kate Wallace, Chief Executive of Victim Support Scotland, added:
“During the last year, we have been vocal about our concerns about the hugely damaging and lasting impact that delays to court trials is having of victims, witnesses and their families at the time when they are most vulnerable. Today’s announcement could not have come soon enough for many who have been left with uncertainty during the pandemic.
“The justice sector has had to work creatively and innovatively to reinvigorate itself and to ensure that trials go ahead. Victim Support Scotland remains committed to providing services to every victim and witness going to court to make sure they feel informed at each stage of the process, and supported before, during and after a trial.”
Virtual summary trials are identified as an important step in recommencing summary trials and reducing the numbers of people who are required to attend court buildings for proceedings. Physical distancing is likely to remain in place in court buildings for some time and this restriction requires alternative solutions such as virtual hearings and remote jury centres to allow a full trial programme to resume and eventually contribute to reducing case backlog as part of the longer term recovery programme. Safety in court buildings for all court users must remain a priority.
For the new arrangements, the sheriff will decide that the case is suitable to be heard virtually, and there may be reasons identified, such as vulnerability, which require the case to proceed in person in court.
While case witnesses will also be able to give evidence remotely, the accused, the defence solicitor and sheriff will be present in the court building, although normally participating from a non-courtroom setting.
Victim Support Scotland is here to help anyone affected by crime. If you need support, please contact us via our helpline (0800 160 1985), our webchat service or our contact form.