HIGH COURT cases should take place in different parts of Scotland to clear a backlog of cases, the Scottish Criminal Bar Association has suggested. 

MSPs are scrutinising plans to restart Scotland’s court system amid fears that the Covid-19 pandemic and social distancing rules could lead to a backlog of 2,000 high court cases over the next two years. 

Lady Dorrian has set out the first steps to restart jury trials in Scotland – including an initial number of cases to be heard next month with use of three courts at the High Court in Glasgow and the jury using the public gallery. Plans in Edinburgh would allow the jury to view trials remotely from a separate courtroom to allow for social distancing. 

Appearing in front of Holyrood’s justice committee, Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf stressed that controversial judge-only trials “are not an option that we are exploring” to clear the backlog, despite Eric McQueen, the chief executive of the Scottish Courts and Tribunal Services (SCTS), last week insisting it was the only way to significant make progress in clearing the pile-up. 

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Controversial no-jury trials 'could be only option' to tackle courts backlog

Earlier, Kate Wallace, the chief executive of Victim Support Scotland, said she was “deeply worried” about the size of the backlog of cases, warning that the situation would be “unacceptably cruel” to victims if they were forced to wait for an extended length of time to see justice done. 

She added: “We would urge that, as a temporary measure related to this emergency - that has now become an emergency in our courts as well - that work is started to explore the possibility of jury-less trials as a last resort and as an emergency and temporary measure." 

But Ronnie Renucci, president of the Scottish Criminal Bar Association, told MSPs that his organisation remained "vehemently opposed" to removing juries from criminal trials. He had suggested that a smaller jury could be an option to tackle the obstacle of social distancing in courts, but Ms Wallace warned this could add to the likelihood of mistrials, adding to the anxiety of victims. 

READ MORE: Warning that delays in re-starting jury trials causing 'further trauma' for victims or crime

Mr Renucci said a solution to the stalemate would be "putting the High Court back out in circuit, taking it to the communities that it serves" - with the approach including rehiring retired judges and allowing juries to watch proceedings remotely while social distanced in another room in the court. 

He added: "The High Court used to sit in various places - not only Glasgow, Aberdeen, Livingston and Edinburgh, primarily, as it does now. 

"It could go to Inverness, Dundee, Forfar, Perth, Stirling, Dumbarton, Hamilton, Paisley, Kilmarnock – all these places can be utilised once we are out of Covid-19." 

He added: "To some, non-jury trials may seem the cheapest and most convenient way of addressing that backlog.

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

"But cheap and easy is not a sound basis for any criminal justice system. Convenience should not somehow outrank or take precedence over justice." 

Mr Yousaf warned that “physical distancing is going to be the norm for all of us for quite a while” and added that “it is quite prudent for the courts service to assume and plan these social distancing measures in place for quite a period to come”. 

The Justice Secretary stressed that “there’s not one magic solution” to clearing the pile-up of trials but said “clearly we’ve got to continue to do work on that backlog”. 

He added: “On victims, there is already a lot of anxiety around a court appearance and now exacerbated by the fact that there could be a fairly significant or fairly lengthy delay to the trial. 

“For the accused equally, I’m now starting to see the numbers on remand in prison begin to increase again – that gives me concern – the amount of time they are being held on remand gives me cause for concern. 

“We will move as swiftly as we can and as safely as we can and look to use technology where we can to ensure that we can make some progress.”