Criminal trials hit with delays due to prisoner escort staff shortages

Cases of violent crime have been running late or adjourned as the Law Society brand the disruption 'disgraceful.'

Cases of violent crime are being increasingly delayed in Highlands and Islands courts.

Hearings have run late or been adjourned because of a staff shortage in the prisoner escort service.

It has meant frustration for all involved, from jurors and witnesses to legal teams and the accused.

Court hearings at all levels have been impacted.

Some cases have been held back by a matter of hours with people sitting in court up to 10pm, while some have been adjourned to a later date.

Sheila Webster of The Law Society said it had meant personal and financial inconvenience to many people and branded reports of disruption “disgraceful.”

She told STV News: “In much of the Highlands, they simply won’t be able to hold solemn trials. And solemn trials, as you may appreciate, is the most serious level of cases – cases involving the most serious assaults, sexual offences, potentially murder cases.

“They’re simply not being able to proceed in most of the courts in the Highlands in the light of this, so that’s how serious the situation has now got.”

Court officials have introduced a temporary measure that means new jury trials at sheriff courts in Stornoway, Lerwick, Kirkwall, Portree and Lochmaddy have been switched to Inverness, Aberdeen or Peterhead.

Active jury trials scheduled for Lochmaddy and Portree have transferred to Inverness.

Prisoner escort service GeoAmey acknowledged a “challenging labour market,” which had been “a material factor in the delays.”

It apologised for the impact, saying most escorts were on time and that it would continue to strive to improve the service.

The company said the challenges were part of “other issues across the judicial sector,” that needed to be addressed and that discussions were continuing with its stakeholder partners.

The situation has compounded the impact of the pandemic on court proceedings, with case numbers overall down by more than 10% due to delays inflicted by Covid.

A charity working for families affected by imprisonment is deeply concerned.

Dr Nancy Loucks of Families Outside said: “We just finished two years of research on the financial impact of imprisonment and what we found was that when people were in custody on remand families were spending up to a third of their income just trying to support the person in prison.

“Supporting people on release from prison, again, is costing a third of their income. We’re talking about families who are already in poverty, already financially stretched – that is finances they just don’t have.”

In a statement, the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service said it was “engaging with justice organisations to minimise the impact on the operation of court business.”

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