Court arrangements will continue until 31 March

Feb 12, 2021

As a result of the continued high transmission levels of COVID-19 across Scotland, the Lord President has announced that the court restrictions currently in place until 28 February will be extended throughout March. This means that the criminal courts will continue to focus on the most serious trials and the majority of summary trials in the Sheriff Court and Justice of the Peace Court will be adjourned. This will reduce the overall number of criminal trials taking place during lockdown by up to 75%.

This will also significantly reduce the number of people required to attend court in person, by around 7000 per week, while ensuring that the most essential business is progressed in the interests of justice and the safety of those involved.

The Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service has very clear guidance from Public Health Scotland on the measures that are required to minimise the potential transmission of the virus and on how the courts can continue to operate safely under the current restrictions. Court buildings and court rooms adhere strictly to that guidance. While there is an increased risk of transmission from the new variant of COVID across the wider community, the clinical advice has remained that, provided the FACTS guidance is followed, the working environment is as safe as possible.factsSM

We have reviewed current COVID-19 transmission levels, including the ongoing impact of new variants, with senior public health officials in the Scottish Government. This has confirmed that we have taken all the right steps in making our buildings safe, and that we should continue to focus on the most essential business at this time to reduce travel, overall footfall and physical interaction in our courts. By taking these steps we continue to support the public health response at this critical time.

As a result, all our courts will remain open for business during March, but remain closed to the general public. All criminal jury trials in the High Court and Sheriff Court will continue as planned. These will focus on the most serious cases, where people are in custody and where the nature of the alleged offence, including sexual offences and offences involving domestic abuse and children, demand that priority be given.

All new custody cases and summary custody trials in the Sheriff Courts and Justice of the Peace courts will continue to be heard. With the exception of a limited number of priority cases with a trial diet already set in March, all other non-custody trials where an intermediate diet has already taken place will be administratively adjourned. Provision will remain for the Crown to accelerate priority or urgent trials, such as those involving allegations of domestic abuse or child witnesses. All intermediate diets, with the attendance of the accused excused, and remand court hearings will continue, with remote representation supported where possible.

All High Court criminal and civil appeals and the Sheriff Appeal Court, the Bail Appeal Court, Office of the Public Guardian and Tribunals will continue to operate virtually and remotely, as they have been doing throughout the pandemic.

Similarly, the vast majority of civil business in the Court of Session, Scottish Land Court and Sheriff Court will continue to be conducted remotely. This includes the All Scotland Sheriff Personal Injury Court (ASSPIC).

The following guidance sets out in more detail the arrangements which will apply in order to reduce attendance levels. Our current planning assumption is that these arrangements will remain in place until 31 March – although this will be kept under regular review with a formal review planned for 5 March, to assess any changes to the public health measures.


Witnesses and jurors

Witnesses cited to attend the Sheriff Court for a summary criminal trial from Monday 1 March, should not attend unless they are contacted directly by the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) or the solicitor acting for the accused.

Jurors and witnesses cited to appear for a High Court or Sheriff Court Solemn trial (this means jurors attending a remote jury centre) should continue to do so. These facilities have been specifically designed to provide a safe environment for jurors during the pandemic – and support the administration of justice in relation to the most serious criminal cases.

Face coverings

In those cases that will continue to be heard at this time, physical distancing can, and must, be maintained at all times. In recognition of the fact that a number of individuals may need to be present in a courtroom, the Lord President has introduced the requirement for face coverings to be worn while in court rooms, as an additional measure – over and above the need to fully observe the FACTS advice – full face covering guidance in court is available here.

Client consultation

Minimising face-to-face meetings within court buildings reduces the risk of transmission. Where possible, consultations should take place outwith the court estate. However, it is acknowledged there may be occasions where it is not possible to consult or take instructions on a particular matter in advance of the day of a court hearing.

Where client instruction or consultation is required during a court hearing, an adjournment can be sought. Where it is required prior to a court hearing, we will do our best during this period to facilitate local arrangements, using currently unoccupied accommodation.

Safety remains our top priority

Throughout the pandemic, we have been guided by Public Health advice and have ensured that our facilities meet the standards required for non-healthcare settings allowed to operate at this time. Those visiting our buildings in the coming days will notice new, refreshed signage that has been installed to help remind us all of the need to observe the arrangements in place. A safe working environment is a combination of the facilities and the way in which we all use them. We are relying on everyone to redouble their efforts to help keep us all safe. If you have any queries about the arrangements we have in place – and the steps we need everyone to take so that they work – please read our detailed guidance for court and tribunal users during coronavirus.

We appreciate that these measures represent a further significant change to court business but, in view of the current circumstances, we believe this is the right approach to take.

While there is an increased risk of transmission from the new variant, the clinical advice remains that, provided the FACTS guidance is followed, our working environment is as safe as possible. Following that guidance to the letter is even more important at this stage – as prospect of more widespread vaccination comes into view.

At the outset, SCTS set out three priorities for an effective response to the pandemic. These have not changed – and remain to:

  • support the public health response to the outbreak – protecting the life and safety of all staff, court and tribunal users
  • maintain all essential business so far as possible – ensuring cases are not lost
  • minimise accumulation of case backlogs so far as possible – to facilitate the most effective recovery

At this point in time, the changes we are making are necessary to effectively support the first of these priorities, while balancing elements of the others. We would like to thank all court users, judiciary and staff for their continuing compliance at this exceptional time. Together we can support justice – safely.

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