The head of the Scottish courts service has warned that controversial plans to hold no-jury trials may have to be revived as it could be the only realistic way to clear a backlog of thousands of cases amid social distancing measures. 

Eric McQueen, the chief executive of the Scottish Courts and Tribunal Services (SCTS), told Holyrood’s justice committee that judge-only trials  were “not completely off the table”, while he indicated that a pilot to restart a small number of jury trials could begin by the start of the summer. 

The Scottish Government had initially proposed replacing jury trials with handing power over to judges, but the Scottish Criminal Bar Association (SCBA) labelled the plans “draconian” before they were dropped from emergency coronavirus legislation. 

READ MORE: Coronavirus in Scotland: No-jury trial proposals labelled 'draconian'

Mr McQueen told MSPs that in order to restart jury trials with effective social distancing rules in place, three court rooms would need to be used for every trial – with officials earmarking six locations where such a set-up could practically take place. 

Convener of the committee, Margaret Mitchell, suggested the SCTS had been “dragging its feet” on attempting to re-start jury trials, compared to England and Wales – adding there had been “some frustration” at the lack of progress. 

Mr McQueen said that “there’s not been any dragging of heels whatsoever”, stressing that “intensive work behind the scenes” was taking place. 

He warned MSPs that the proposals being discussed to restart jury trials “are not solutions” to clearing a backlog, which could reach 3,000 for all trials by March next year. 

 He added: ”They will not reduce the backlog. The things that we have discussed at the moment are not solutions – they many marginally slow it. 

“They may slow the backlog but they certainly won’t address it.” 

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Mr McQueen suggested that the plans for no-jury trials, where a judge would determine cases are “not completely off the table” and looking at the backlog, that approach “would address it very clearly”. 

He added: “We need to be quite clear that that if we're moving into a situation where delays are going to last for a year or two years or three years, then trial by judge is something that would address that and address it very quickly. 

"I fully understand the opposition to trial by judge ... but it is something that I think needs to stay on the table and have active consideration." 

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “As the Scottish Government has previously stated, judge-led trials are not our favoured option. We will continue to discuss the possible temporary alternatives with key justice partners, including representatives of the legal profession, victims organisations, political parties and human rights experts and are grateful for the work of the court service and all justice partners in enabling case work and some proceedings to continue.

“The working group led by Lady Dorrian is looking at the practical and operational implications of four specific options identified by government in collaboration with stakeholders, as the best way to continue solemn trials while responding to the realities of the current public health guidance - considering a smaller number of jurors, physical distancing in court facilities, adjusting the sentencing powers of sheriff courts and introducing measures for faster progression of jury trials to address any backlog following the easing of public health restrictions.”