Fake Covid alerts are being used by some witnesses and accused to avoid court appearances, an advocate has told MSPs.
Tony Lenehan of the Faculty of Advocates also said claims of Covid-19 symptoms presented an “easy way out” for people who wanted to delay or avoid trials, saying there was little authorities could do to determine if the claims were genuine.
Mr Lenehan also called for the return of in-person trials at the High Court as soon as the pandemic allowed, claiming virtual hearings simply did not have the gravitas required.
Holyrood’s Criminal Justice Committee heard from a number of groups involved in the justice sector during a round table discussion on Wednesday.
Mr Lenehan, who is president of the Scottish Criminal Bar Association, said that in a recent case a person from England had presented three Covid text message notifications which prevented them from attending three trial diets in a row.
Prosecutors suspected there was a “ruse” when the person did not agree to face-to-face testing, he said, while police were not able to determine the authenticity of the notifications.
Mr Lenehan said: “There have been a number of cases where witnesses, for example, complained of Covid-like symptoms in the midst of a trial.
“It’s very hard to accommodate the necessary periods of self-isolation within an existing trial – we can’t have a jury who are idle for 10 days or so.
“But I think it’s viewed by some as an easy way out, because if they make the claim of Covid it’s very hard for us as legal professionals, and for the Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service, to dig down to the bottom of that claim.
“Very often it means that just from a practical point of view, a trial has to be abandoned.”
He added: “The experience of my members and my own experience satisfies me that it is used by people as a means of avoiding something they don’t want to happen, and it might be that that applies in other aspects of life in Scotland as well.”
The Faculty of Advocates’ submission to the committee said the use of virtual hearings should end when Covid allows, saying they diminished the value of personal interaction.
Making the case for this, Mr Lenehan said: “The High Court is a grand structure, which strikes fear into the hearts of those who are here to do evil.
“When we reduce it to TV screens – you lose the sense of awe-inspiring grandeur which either melts the resolve of the guilty or stiffens the resolve of those who are scared to tell the truth.”
However, not all members of the roundtable discussion were as enthusiastic to bring virtual hearings to an end quickly.
Kate Wallace of Victim Support Scotland argued that victims’ evidence was improved by being able to appear remotely.
She said: “Tony Lenehan described the intimidating environment a court can be.
“And I think it’s worthwhile remembering that many organisations hear victims describing exactly how traumatising that environment is.
“Often they will describe the court process as more traumatising than the crime itself.”