Lord President’s guidance aims to help tackle court backlog
The Lord Justice General, Lord Carloway has issued a practice note aimed at reducing the current summary case backlog, whilst ensuring physical distancing, in the sheriff courts.
Currently, many summary sheriff court cases resolve on the day when the trial is scheduled by an agreed guilty plea between the prosecutor and the defence.
Alternatively, a case calls in court when it is not yet ready to proceed. This can mean witnesses and complainers attend unnecessarily and a slot in the court programme is used, preventing another case from proceeding to trial.
The practice note establishes new early, physically distanced, meetings between the prosecution and the defence outwith the courtroom, before a trial date is confirmed.
These pre-intermediate diet meetings (PIDM) will help to ensure that only those cases which cannot be resolved by agreement, and which are ready for trial, will advance to the trial date, thus reducing the unnecessary attendance at court of all involved in a case, including the prosecution, defence, witnesses and accused.
In South Strathclyde, Dumfries and Galloway (Ayr, Airdrie, Dumfries, Hamilton, Lanark, Stranraer), the recent launch of such meetings has led to most cases resolving early, freeing up space in the court programme for significantly more cases to proceed to trial.
To date, approximately 400 cases have resolved in meetings across the area.
Lord Carloway said: “In light of the backlog of cases which has built up as a result of Covid-19 restrictions, it is vital to the efficient operation of the courts that valuable trial diets are not lost by last minute adjournments or late guilty pleas. Not only will early engagement improve the efficiency of the courts, it will also prevent witnesses and complainers from attending trials unnecessarily. Minimising physical contact with others in sheriff courts will reduce the risk of spreading Coronavirus.
“The practice note was drafted following consultation with the Law Society of Scotland and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service. They are to be thanked for their valuable contributions. Such collaborative work is helping to ensure that justice is delivered in Scotland as efficiently as possible within a safe environment. The progress that is being made, to adapt to the challenging circumstances which we currently face, will serve our justice system well into the future.”
The Lord Advocate, James Wolffe QC, said: “Since the coronavirus pandemic began, the COPFS has been working closely with criminal justice partners to respond to the challenges the sector has faced and this practice note forms part of that work.
“It is now more important than ever that cases progress efficiently and timeously through the justice system. This practice note will underpin good communication between prosecutors and defence lawyers, with a view to promoting that objective.
“COPFS is committed to continuing to work with sheriffs principal and the wider legal profession to make improvements that will not only benefit the justice system now, as it recovers from the effects of the pandemic, but in the years to come as well.”
Debbie Wilson, convener of the Criminal Law Committee of the Law Society of Scotland, said: “The introduction of Pre-Intermediate Diet Meetings brings with it a new way of working for solicitors working for both the Crown and the defence. As with any new process, its success largely depends on clear communication with those who have to follow it. I encourage all of our members working in Scottish criminal courts to familiarise themselves with the practice note and supporting information about this new way of working before it comes into effect.”
The Lord Justice General’s practice note comes into full effect on 1 December.