Scottish government told to listen to lawyers’ concerns over remote hearings

Scottish government told to listen to lawyers' concerns over remote hearings

Holyrood’s criminal justice committee has warned against setting in stone a presumption in favour of remote legal hearings.

The committee has set out its views on the proposed extension of temporary changes to the justice system in the Scottish government’s Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) Bill.

The committee is reporting its findings to the Covid Recovery Committee, which will take a view on the bill as a whole.

The committee has considered only the provisions relating to justice issues, including:

  • Extending the time limits on court cases coming to trial,
  • Greater use of technology in court cases to allow remote hearings,
  • Greater use of fiscal fines,
  • The power for ministers to release prisoners early.

The committee said that it understood the necessity to continue many of the changes, and backed some – such as interim legal aid payments – becoming permanent improvements to the justice system.

However, it warned that more fundamental, permanent changes to the system, like a long-term presumption for remote hearings, would need more data, debate, and a greater consensus from key stakeholders before being made. To this end, it has called on the Scottish government and courts service to acknowledge the legitimate concerns of stakeholders, including many lawyers.

The committee has also called on ministers to ensure that information to victims is improved when cases are settled through fiscal fines. The committee also believes that communication with and support for victims should be improved if ministers have to use powers to release prisoners early again.

Members also called on the government to return to normal time limits for court cases as soon as feasible, as this is in the interests of both victims and the accused. The committee does not want these extended time limits to become the new normal. Their use should be monitored and used proportionally.

Speaking as the report was published, committee convener, Audrey Nicoll MSP, said: “The justice sector was greatly impacted by the pandemic, and supporting its recovery is a priority for our committee.

“Many of these changes, including the extension on trial time limits, are unwelcome but necessary. We absolutely understand the need to legislate for them, though we all want to see delays and backlogs cleared as soon as possible.”

Ms Nicoll continued: “The sweeping changes introduced to respond to the unprecedented situation we found ourselves in have understandably reinvigorated the debate on reforming the sector.

“Many of the innovations, particularly the less controversial and technical rules, have been broadly welcomed. Where those are sensible and enjoy broad support, we back these being made permanent. We would see no reason to, for example, remove interim legal aid payments, or bar the Parole Board from allowing its chair to delegate decisions.

“However, on more fundamental questions about the administration and delivery of justice in Scotland, such as how court business is conducted, we want to see more data, more consideration being given to rights, and evidence that any changes  would be required and beneficial before any permanent legislation is introduced.”

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