Emergency measures during Covid-19 crisis may ‘shape future of criminal justice system’

Emergency measures during Covid-19 crisis may 'shape future of criminal justice system'

Some emergency measures in the criminal justice system, including the use of electronic signatures and electronic transmission of documents, should continue after the Covid-19 crisis, inspectors have said.

In a new joint report, HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland and HM Inspectorate of Prosecution in Scotland said “innovations” during the crisis were often overdue.

Gill Imery, chief inspector of constabulary, said: “In some instances, the pandemic has been a catalyst and in others an accelerator. Lessons learned from the past few months may help shape the future of criminal justice.”

The joint inspection focused on four measures introduced during the pandemic: electronic signature and electronic transmission of documents; remote attendance at court; the ability to take a case in any sheriff court; and the revised Lord Advocate’s guidelines on liberation by the police during Covid-19.

Ms Laura Paton, chief inspector of prosecution, said: “It is now an appropriate time to take stock, assess their operation and ensure the benefits are being fully realised without comprising the fair administration of justice.

“While many innovations have been vital to the continued function of the criminal justice system and may be of benefit in the longer term, their swift introduction without the usual consultation or equality and human rights impact assessments, risks them not gaining the support required or the fairness of proceedings being questioned.”

The most used provision has been electronic signature and electronic transmission of documents, which inspectors deemed to be not only effective and efficient but also saving in time and money and environmentally friendly. There is wide scale support for the practice to continue.

There is more uncertainty about the future of remote hearings, where the report noted issues around solicitor consultation, the ability of the accused to participate effectively in proceedings, and the quality of video links, all of which would need to be addressed.

The report identified that some summary trials and hearings were straightforward enough for the virtual environment but there was a degree of scepticism about a significant roll out. It suggested that for summary trials, a hybrid model with some of the trial taking place in person and some witnesses appearing virtually should be given serious consideration.

There has been “minimal take-up” of the facility for those making a first appearance from custody to be dealt with in any sheriff court in Scotland, rather than the one closest to where the offence took place. It may be of use in some limited circumstances in the future, inspectors said, but further consultation would be required.

When reviewing the impact of the revised Lord Advocate’s guidelines on release from police custody, the inspection team found they had had a considerable impact on the number of people detained in custody and held for court and had prompted cultural change within Police Scotland.

The inspection fieldwork was carried out in August and early September as the criminal justice system was still responding to the pandemic and assessing how it will recover. Issues identified in the report are already subject to discussion among criminal justice partners.

Share icon
Share this article: