By Alistair Grant

SCOTLAND’S criminal justice system is about to receive the big screen treatment to help deal with a growing backlog of court cases. 

From next week, jurors will head to an Odeon cinema on the outskirts of Edinburgh to reach a verdict on some of the country’s most serious criminal cases. 

The “remote jury centre” in Fort Kinnaird retail park will be the first of its kind in the UK, and will be followed by a similar arrangement at Glasgow’s Braehead from October 12.

The pioneering set-up will allow 15 jurors to sit in a cinema screen, spaced apart, with cameras connecting them to courts in Edinburgh, Livingston and Glasgow. 

From there, they can watch proceedings, while also being beamed onto a video wall in the courtroom itself for the benefit of the judge, lawyers and others.

Tim Barraclough, director of the Judicial Office for Scotland, said: “This allows us to get back up to the full 16 trials running at any one time, which is where we were pre Covid.” 

The move follows concerns over a rising backlog of court cases during the coronavirus pandemic, and the Scottish Government has provided £5.5 million to fund the new scheme.

Mr Barraclough said: “In the High Court, before we entered into the lockdown period there were around about 390 trials waiting to proceed, which is about the level you would expect during normal business.

 “That has probably – it’s about doubled, I’d say, to around 750 at the end of August. 

“And every month, of course, that we are not able to proceed with trials, that number will be increasing.”

Yesterday, The Herald was among a number of news organisations to get a demonstration of how the new set-up will work during a visit to the cinema complex in Edinburgh. 

For at least the next six months, Fort Kinnaird’s Odeon will be booked out from 8am on Monday to 6pm on Friday for the exclusive use of the court, meaning it will only screen films at the weekend. 

Five screens have been kitted out for jury use, with multiple cameras installed and a special area set up at the front for deliberations. 

Security will search people at the main door and staff have been given strict instructions to keep jurors two metres apart. 

Face coverings will need to be worn when moving around the building, but must be removed during the trial.

Mr Barraclough said: “It only operates as a cinema over the weekend, so we will dismantle all of this on the Friday evening and set it up again on the Monday morning.” 

He added: “This is an extension of the court, so it will be just like coming into court premises. 

“It will be managed and controlled in exactly the way that we would expect court premises to be managed and controlled.”

A further 11 screens will be available for use when Glasgow’s facility is up and running. Up to 12 additional jury minders will also be hired for the Braehead complex. 

Mr Barraclough said this is just the first stage of the ambitious project. 

He added: “Obviously we will be looking to extend that into other parts of the country, both in relation to further High Court trials and also, in time, to sheriff and jury trials as well.”

Despite the new arrangements, courts are still unable to cope with trials where there are three or more accused, due to physical distancing constraints in the courtroom itself.

Mr Barraclough said this is something that will have to be addressed “sooner rather than later”, and may require courtrooms to be completely gutted and reconstructed. 

And while family members and journalists will still be able to attend courts to watch proceedings, there will be a limit on how many are allowed in.

The strict physical distancing rules should mean, however, that if one juror has to self-isolate, the others are unaffected. 

Steven D’Arcy, project manager at the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service, said: “The court can still run with 12 jurors, but if we went below that number the trial could no longer continue.”

The cinemas are booked out for a minimum of six months, with the possibility of extending for a further six months. 

Asked how much the contract with the Odeon is worth, Mr D’Arcy said this was commercially sensitive. 

The launch of the remote jury centres follows recommendations made by the Restarting Solemn Trials Working Group, chaired by the Lord Justice Clerk, Lady Dorrian.

Ronnie Renucci QC, president of the Scottish Criminal Bar Association, said: “The use of cinemas as remote jury centres is an innovative and unique solution to the problem of conducting jury trials during the present restrictions.

“More importantly it is a workable solution that allows jury trials to proceed at a sustainable level, which should prevent the present backlog rising further. The SCTS are to be commended for their efforts in putting the vision of Lady Dorrian’s recommendations into practice and the Scottish Government for providing the means to make it possible.”