Lawyers raise concerns over permanent virtual custody hearings

Lawyers raise concerns over permanent virtual custody hearings

Lawyers have raised concerns over the permanent implementation of video links for accused persons.

A number of custody cases at Aberdeen Sheriff Court see accused persons appear via video link from Kittybrewster Police Station.

The measure was introduced amid the pandemic for cases in which the accused may have had COVID-19.

The Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service, however, has confirmed it aims to expand the scheme to all custody cases, “removing the need for anyone to physically appear in court”.

Stuart Murray, president of the Aberdeen Bar Association, told the Aberdeen Evening Express: “The problem is a great many people are being dealt with by way of virtual custody. It seems to be a matter that’s being driven by Police Scotland as well as the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service.

“Judges don’t seem to have any control over what’s happening and often it seems to be beyond the knowledge of the bench. The problem is Police Scotland seem to be pushing through this system of virtual custodies and initially it was because they were trying to deal with people that either had COVID-19 or were suspected of having COVID-19.

“Latterly what they’re clearly doing is testing a system which I assume they want to impose long term and they’re putting through a minimum of two virtual custodies a day. But there’s no analysis as to what needs those individual custodies have.

“So very often people that may have multiple issues, drug addiction, alcohol addiction, mental health problems, medical issues, are not being assessed and are being deprived a face-to-face consultation with their lawyer.

“It’s the case that I’ve had more than one client go through court over the last few weeks who have had multiple issues, including learning difficulties on occasion, who are dealt with by way of link from Kittybrewster Police Station.

“They’re physically being denied face-to-face contact with their solicitors.”

He added: “What we say is custodies should all be brought to court to have face-to-face contact with their solicitor, rather than being dealt with virtually.

A spokesman for the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service said: “Video link custody hearings were put in place during the COVID-19 outbreak for any accused with suspected or confirmed symptoms, in order to minimise the risk of infection and transmission.

“Given the relatively low numbers involved each day, an additional two non-COVID-19 cases are also being heard by video link to build knowledge and experience and address any teething problems in the operation of video link custody hearings.

“Separately, it is the aim to move to fully virtual custody hearings, removing the need for anyone to physically appear in court.

“A pilot is being developed in Glasgow Sheriff Court, involving a representative from the Glasgow Bar Association. The pilot will determine the requirements of the virtual custody hearings, including the technical solution, consultation between the solicitor and accused and case scheduling.

“The pilot will be fully evaluated before any decision is taken on a wider rollout.”

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