High Court recommends remote jury centres

14 Aug

THE Lord Justice General, Lord Carloway, has agreed a recommendation from the Restarting Solemn Trials Working Group for an innovative new approach for High Court jury trials in Scotland that will create remote jury centres.  With £5.5m financial support from Scottish Government, these centres will enable juries to participate in trials from venues other than court buildings, allowing the number of trials taking place to increase substantially.

This follows the success of the "remote jury" model in Edinburgh High Court, where, because of physical distancing requirements, juries have been observing trials by video link from another courtroom. The Working Group, chaired by the Lord Justice Clerk, Lady Dorrian, has recommended that this model be developed to allow juries to view proceedings from jury centres outwith the Court estate altogether. This will mean that, even with requirements for physical distancing in place, the High Court can use all the court rooms at its disposal to run trials.

The Working Group has been looking at how best to get jury trials to a more sustainable level. It very quickly came to the conclusion that using remote juries minimised the need to change the fundamentals of the trial process itself – which would be time-consuming and have uncertain outcomes - and maximised the prospects of returning trial capacity, as quickly as possible, to pre COVID-19 levels of 16 Trial Courts.

Preparation for this next stage has already advanced considerably. The technology has been shown to work within Edinburgh High Court, and successful tests have been run from a jury centre based in a cinema complex. In one of these tests, a mock trial was conducted with a full jury of 15 persons observing proceedings involving the judge, court staff, prosecution, defence, security and SCTS staff members playing the roles of accused and witnesses. The mock jury consisted of members of the working group and representatives from other justice sector and third sector organisations, whose feedback was used to refine and improve the model.

Chair of the Working Group, Lady Dorrian, was pleased to recommend this approach to Lord Carloway:

"The beauty of this solution is that it preserves the 15-person jury trial, and will allow us, in time, to raise business in the High Court to a level that will start to address the growing backlog of cases.

The Working Group took a long hard look at the lessons learned from the two-court and three-court model currently in use to run a small number of trials. It was clear that the remote jury model does work, and, if suitable external venues could be identified, it would be possible to run a much higher number of trials, making full use of the courtrooms we have available for the trials. I’m very grateful to everyone on the group, and others who have provided feedback, for helping us develop such an exciting, imaginative but extremely practical solution"

Based on this recommendation, the SCTS is seeking to establish remote jury centres, based in cinema complexes in the East and West of Scotland for at least 16 juries.

Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf said:

"As we continue to move out of lockdown we need new thinking and collaboration to deliver jury trials in line with public health requirements.

"Lord Justice Clerk Lady Dorrian’s working group and the courts service should be commended for finding and delivering a ground breaking solution that significantly increases High Court capacity to make up to 16 jury rooms available while importantly adhering to physical distancing rules.

"Our £5.5m funding of this scheme not only allows serious criminal cases to proceed, but also provides reassurance to victims, witness and accused who have been adversely affected by case delays.

"Work is ongoing to consider what further actions may be required to address the backlog and for remote jury centres to be further rolled out for Sheriff and Jury cases."

Eric McQueen, Chief Executive of the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service, said:

"The great advantage of these remote jury centres is that they provide, in a single building, a number of spacious and soundproofed auditoria that can comfortably accommodate 15 physically distanced jurors, combined with state of the art secure technology. It also means we have a model that can be replicated at various sites around the country. Everyone who saw the test set-up was impressed both by the quality of audio-presentation of court proceedings, and by the way in which the cinema complexes can be transformed into centres that properly reflect the solemnity of court proceedings. That was down to the quality of the feedback we got from all parties. It’s been a great collaborative effort. From the modelling reports we published yesterday it is clear that until we can return to trials within a single courtroom, we need a radical approach that will give us the capacity we need to make a difference to the High Court backlog."

Ronnie Renucci QC, Vice-Dean of Faculty and the President of the Scottish Criminal Bar Association, member of the Working Group, welcomed the move, saying:

"Lady Dorrian should be applauded for not being afraid to employ a radical solution to the problem, and likewise the SCTS should be applauded for their hard work, innovative thinking and expertise in putting that plan into action in a way that will not only secure the retention of full strength jury trials in Scotland, but will also allow them to resume at a sustainable and realistic level which has the potential to begin eating into the backlog.

This problem is one faced by jurisdictions worldwide, and Lady Dorrian, in adopting a collaborative approach involving all stakeholders, including the Crown, Faculty of Advocates, Law Society and victims groups, coupled with the support and financial backing of Scottish Government has ensured that once more Scotland has led the way. I have no doubt that other jurisdictions will follow."

Kate Wallace, Chief Executive of Victim Support Scotland, which participated in the mock trial, said:

"We know from the many victims and family members that we support, that delays to proceedings can have a devastating impact on them with long-lasting consequences. We therefore welcome any move that aims to reignite the court system to prevent a further backlog.

"Victim Support Scotland has been involved, alongside our partners in other support organisations, in assessing the suitability of remote jury centres and providing feedback based on what we know will and won’t work for people giving evidence who have been impacted by crime. We are pleased that this feedback has been listened to and acted on by the courts.

"Victims must be placed at the centre of Scotland’s justice system, and the creation of remote jury centres is part of a solution to unusual circumstances due to the Coronavirus pandemic."

Once procurement has been completed, there will be a period of fit-out and testing of the chosen sites, in advance of the first High Court remote jury centre trials commencing in the autumn. Meantime High Court trials will continue to be heard using the two and three courts models in both Edinburgh and Glasgow. Discussions are underway with Scottish Governments on how the remote jury centre model can be extended to include Sheriff Court jury trials.