Sheriff courts implement social distancing measures

New restrictions in place as staff balance safety with public access to the justice system.

Courts are implementing new measures. Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service
Courts are implementing new measures.

Sheriff courts across Scotland have implemented social distancing measures as they move to a post-pandemic justice system that is “certainly not business as usual”.

Covid-19 has forced the suspension of jury trials and led to a backlog of court cases.

Courts have now implemented restrictions and measures as staff juggle balancing public safety and public access to the justice system.

Measures include taping off sections of seating in court rooms, limiting the number of people in the well of the court and placing hand sanitiser stations around the building.

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Members of the public are also currently unable to view hearings in person, though video feeds are available in certain cases.

Yvonne Taylor, director of operations for the sheriff and justice of the peace courts at the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service, said courts could not be fully opened if the current level of business was to be maintained.

She told the PA news agency: “The biggest challenge has been maintaining the business levels while ensuring court users are safe and physical distancing is in place.

“We couldn’t maintain levels of business we have if we opened up the court to more levels of footfall.

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“However, the media are welcome to attend the court as a representative of the public.

“The public can view any virtual hearings that we have ongoing.”

Glasgow Sheriff Court is normally the busiest court in Scotland, with up to 500 people passing through its doors on an average Monday.

Now, the court hallways are quiet. Security staff in face shields greet those who do enter the building and the walls and floors are marked with social distancing instructions.

Sheriff court jury trials are currently suspended, though a working group is considering the next steps and juries will return to the high courts in Glasgow and Edinburgh in July.

The number of court rooms in operation has reduced from 27 per day to between six and eight per week.

The pandemic has also increased the use of digital technology, including accused appearing virtually from police custody.

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Ms Taylor said the courts began putting social distancing measures in place from day one of the pandemic, though a lack of equipment meant staff “used what we had that was appropriate”.

Despite the country emerging from lockdown, Ms Taylor said it is “certainly not business as usual”.

Speaking about the measures in Glasgow Sheriff Court, she said public galleries are closed, the front row of the dock is taped off and floor markings stop too many people coming into the well of the court.

“Normally you’d find an abundance of lawyers and procurator fiscal staff in this area of the court,” she said.

She added that the measures will have to remain in place until “public health guidance changes”.

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