The Scottish Government is being urged to make greater use of virtual technology to tackle a backlog of court cases that have built up during the coronavirus crisis.
Labour MSP Rhoda Grant urged ministers to act, saying the number of prisoners inside Scotland’s jails who were waiting for trial was putting services under “immense strain”.
Just over a week ago, on October 23, there were 1717 untried prisoners in Scotland’s prisons, Labour said, adding this meant the remand population was more than 300 higher than it was at the same point in 2019.
Grant insisted this showed that “efforts to address the backlog and tackle remand levels are not making progress”.
She added: “While we cannot compromise on the need for fair trials, we must not allow the principles and protections of our justice system to be undermined by the pandemic, and the Scottish Government must find a way to process these cases as a matter of urgency.”
To help tackle the backlog, Grant suggested: “Far more use needs to be made of virtual technology, especially in less serious cases, and the Government must commit to ensure that the equipment and resources are made widely available to expedite such cases.”
The Labour MSP continued: “Extending remand is putting prison services under immense strain and forcing courts into an impossible game of catch-up.
“Much more could be done to streamline the process through virtual hearings and trials, and would go some way to ensuring the legal rights of those on remand are being respected.
“We cannot have remand prisoners languishing in prison for months on end without a trial as the Government sits on its hands. They are presumed innocent until otherwise proven – and forcing remand with no end in sight does not uphold principles of justice.”
In early October, it was announced remote jury centres, which have been set up for High Court cases would be extended in a bit to restart sheriff court trials.
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We understand the impact trial delays have on victims, witnesses and accused, and have provided £12m to the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service for remote High Court and Sheriff jury centres to restore pre-Covid court capacity, on top of £3m to develop court technology.”
She added: “The latest figures show summary trials led by evidence are at 76% pre-Covid levels and the number of people being held on remand are reducing from the Covid peak.
“The impact of Covid-19 is being felt by jurisdictions across the world. We continue to work with partners, including victims groups, the Scottish courts and prosecution services, and the legal profession, to identify the best possible way to deal with the backlog.
“This includes consideration of remote jury centres in sheriff and jury cases, optimising the use of the physical court estate within the prevailing public health requirements, increased use of digital technology where appropriate and additional support to organisations supporting victims.
“A new structure, led by a Criminal Justice Board, has been established to co-ordinate recovery activity, including in the criminal courts. This board meets every two weeks to direct and monitor progress and ensure a whole system overview of the work under way.”