A pilot of virtual custody courts in the wake of the covid-19 crisis has been plagued by technology problems, prompting concerns over possible human rights breaches.

Lawyers claim accused have been unable to hear proceedings in some cases, while crossed lines have meant solicitor-client consultations have been played out in court.

Edinburgh and Aberdeen Bar Associations claim the video link technology regularly fails and have raised concerns that when it does work, consultation with their clients is not private.

A survey published yesterday by the Law Society of Scotland also showed that more than 80% of lawyers asked were dissatisfied with the video link set-up for virtual custody court consultations.

A further 78% also had problems accessing court papers or arranging a consultation ahead of the accused making their first appearance in court.

The Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service (SCTS) said the pilot will consider the issues raised by the solicitors and work to “refine the standards required for virtual custody hearings”.

Julia McPartlin, president of the Edinburgh Bar Association, said: “The links, at the moment, aren’t good enough. In Edinburgh, the accused is behind a sheet of glass and the camera is on the other side so the sound quality isn’t great on the video link. The other issue is that the conversation from that room can also be heard out in the corridor by police or security staff.

“We’ve also had a couple of examples of crossed lines. Agents have been in court and they’ve been able to hear other agents consulting with their clients elsewhere.

“We are concerned that in some cases this is causing a breach of EHRC rights. Clients are entitled to consult with a solicitor and that consultation should be confidential. Being able to hear what is going on in court is also part of their right to a fair trial - they should be able to effectively participate and, in some cases, they haven’t been able to do that.”

The custody courts deal with people who have been arrested and are being held by Police Scotland.

At present, most cases involve the accused being taken to court by security staff, but virtual hearings have been brought in to deal with people with suspected or confirmed Covid-19.

This has now been expanded to a handful of non-covid cases and the court service aims to roll it out so that virtual custody hearings become the “norm” in Scotland.

However, lawyers believe there needs to be investment in infrastructure and technology before this can happen.

Stuart Murray, president of Aberdeen Bar Association, said: “What they’ve done in these cases is removed face to face contact with a solicitor and substituted it with a remote access conversation when the technology just isn’t up to scratch.

“The video link we were supposed to use rarely worked, and on occasion it can take as many as 20 phone calls to get through to the police station in order to speak to a client before they appeared in court. And then on the occasions when the link did work, most clients couldn’t hear what was going on in court. The technology just isn’t fit for purpose.”

He added that virtual custody hearings have now been stopped at Aberdeen.

Miss McPartlin added that the country’s bar associations may join together to insist all non-covid accused are brought to court if the technological problems continue.

The Law Society said its survey highlighted the “significant issues” faced by solicitors and their clients.

Society president Amanda Millar said: “There is a role for technology in the justice system and there may be some potential advantages to virtual custody courts beyond the immediate need for Covid-19 safety measures.

“However the survey findings have highlighted a range of practical problems arising from the pilot. These will have to be addressed before there can be any plans for a further roll out.”

She added that the technology involved must provide “secure, confidential communication between a solicitor and their client, otherwise there may be potential challenges”.

David Fraser, SCTS Chief Operations Officer, said: “We welcome the feedback from the Law Society based on solicitors’ experiences. The Law Society, through the national working group, are involved in the current arrangements for a pilot to be conducted in Glasgow Sheriff Court.

“This pilot will refine the standards required for virtual custody hearings, and takes account of the matters raised in the Law Society report. The pilot will be evaluated before any decision is taken on a wider roll-out.”