Court system facing 'delays and cancellations' over staff shortages

A lack of prison escort workers is having a 'significant impact' on the country's legal system, an independent body said.

Scottish court system facing ‘delays and cancellations’ over GEOAmey staff shortages Feixianhu via iStock

Staffing shortages in Scotland’s prison transport service are continuing to have a “significant impact” on the country’s legal system, the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service (SCTS) has warned.

The body raised concerns about the effect the ongoing issue is having on court staff, witnesses and the accused.

GEOAmey, the company contracted to transport prisoners and young people in custody, has blamed a “challenging labour market” for a lack of workers.

The shortages have caused delays in criminal trials and court hearings and have meant cases can not be heard in some parts of the country.

The Law Society of Scotland described the problem in July as “disgraceful” and said there appeared to be “no end in sight”.

The Law Society of Scotland said there appeared to be 'no end in sight' to the staffing issues.Google Maps

On Thursday, the SCTS said the late arrival of those in custody from cells to court rooms was being “compounded” by similar delays in transporting those from prisons to court hearings.

“This is leading to the cancellation of hearings, trial delays and courts sitting into the evening,” the independent body said.

“All of this is having a significant impact on the running of our criminal courts and the recovery programme, including the planned reinstatement of sheriff and jury trials to the island courts.

“In addition to the impact on court business, we are equally concerned about the wellbeing of all staff working in courts, witnesses, the judiciary, legal professionals and the accused.”

The SCTS said while it acknowledged the efforts being made by the Scottish Government, GEOAmey and the Scottish Prison Service – which manages the prisoner escort contract – “further steps are required to improve the situation”.

They added: “Consequently, we are urgently assessing options and working with the Scottish Government and justice organisations to help alleviate this critical situation, including accelerating the use of virtual custodies to reduce the movement of those in custody.”

A GEOAmey spokesperson said: “GEOAmey is actively engaged in discussions with justice partners on how we can all improve the services we jointly deliver to courts across Scotland.”

“Whilst the challenging UK labour market has impacted our staffing levels, the majority of escorts do take place on time and without incident. Since 2019, GEOAmey has successfully transported circa 90% of prisoners to their scheduled location on time, with less than 1% of movements cancelled or unfulfilled as a result of GEOAmey failure.

“There is no question that there are systemic issues within the criminal justice system which are resulting in court users experiencing a sub-optimal level of service. For example, to clear backlogs in cases caused by the pandemic, court activity has increased at a rate which challenges the existing infrastructure. 

“The root cause of delays experienced at Hamilton Sheriff Court recently, was that over 40 prisoners were scheduled to appear in a building that has only 9 holding cells. 

“Operations therefore could not be delivered effectively without compromising the safety of prisoners and staff.

“There are many similar examples which need to be addressed collectively if we are to successfully improve the service provided to court users.  

“GEOAmey will continue to collaborate with our partners to overcome such challenges, as we are committed to playing our part in clearing the backlog of 50,000 cases caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “It is clear that the current performance of the GeoAmey contract is not working in the way it should and causing disruption for courts and for the Scottish Prison Service.

“All relevant partners are meeting imminently to consider actions that will affect a change to this service so that the courts no longer face the current disruption to their service.”

The Scottish Prison Service have been approached for comment.

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