THE Covid-related backlog in trials for the most serious crimes will take another three years to clear, adding to the trauma of women and children in particular, watchdogs have warned.

The Auditor General for Scotland said it would take until March 2026, six years after the virus outbreak began, before the number of jury trials was back to a steady level.

Stephen Boyle said that although Scotland’s court system reacted rapidly and effectively to lockdown, there was still a huge backlog to clear, including murder and rape trials.

Despite “significant progress”, victims, witnesses and the accused - an increasing number of them held on remand - would suffer significant waits as a result. 

Mr Boyle criticised the Scottish Government for failing to publish a three-year delivery plan which he said was “essential” to its vision for reforming the criminal justice system.

Due out last August, it is now expected at some point this summer.

In a report today, the Auditor General praises joint work by the Scottish Government, courts, prosecutors, legal aid board, police, and prisons at the start of the pandemic. 

Scottish Government funding of £100million helped establish jury centres in cinemas and extra courts, with modelling used to address a rapidly growing backlog of trials. 

Before the pandemic, there were typically 20,000 trials pending, more than 80 per cent of them summary cases before a JP or a sheriff without a jury, including road traffic offences, crimes of dishonesty, common assault and domestic abuse.

However by January 2022, the total had more than doubled to 43,606 outstanding trials, 40,860 of them summary cases.  

The summary total then started to decline, and by February this year was 24,946, of which 4,305 were due to go before a JP, and 20,641 to a sheriff without a jury.

But the backlog was more stubborn for the most serious, or solemn, cases which include murder, serious assault, rape and other sexual offences and are tried before a jury.

These sexual offence cases disproportionately affect women and children.

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The backlog in solemn cases did not peak until January this year, when it hit 3,883, of which 681 were due to be heard in the High Court and 2,402 before a sheriff and jury.

Clearing this backlog is particularly challenging as the number of cases coming to court is higher now than before the pandemic, in part because of historic sexual abuse cases.

Average waiting times for the most serious cases to start have more than doubled since the pandemic, from 11 weeks between an accused's plea and a sheriff and jury trial to 43 weeks, and from 22 weeks to 53 for a High Court trial.

The courts service estimates the backlog in summary trials will be cleared by March 2024, but not until March 2025 for High Court trials and March 2026 for sheriff and jury trials.

Even then, the baseline or “normal operating capacity” will be higher than before.

Pre-pandemic, the normal operating capacity for scheduled High Court trials was 430, but has now been increased to 597; for solemn sheriff trials it was 520 but is now 1,892.

The report said: “The human impact of the criminal court backlog cannot be understated.

“It has a detrimental effect on victims and witnesses, including on their mental health

“As victims wait longer for their cases to be heard, their lives are put on hold and in some cases their trauma is prolonged.”  

It said key risks to continued recovery and successful reform include staffing pressures in the legal profession and disagreements over the use of virtual trials.

Mr Boyle said: “The criminal trial backlog that built up during the pandemic has been substantially reduced thanks to effective partnership working, good use of data and innovation.

“But while the overall number has come down, the wait times for the most serious crimes, such as rape, have increased. And those delays come with a human cost for victims, witnesses and defendants.

“That is why it’s vital that the Scottish Government has a delivery plan in place as soon as possible to further address the backlog and reform the criminal courts system.”

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Tory MSP Jamie Greene said: “Despite a massive shifting of the goalposts in what constitutes a court backlog, we’re still looking at three years to clear it in sheriff solemn court cases and two years in high court trials.

“It is remarkable that even after a near four-fold increase in the target of backlogged sheriff solemn trials, it will still take three years to hit it.

“Victims of rape, murder and serious assault are being failed by SNP ministers again.

“Victims must be at the heart of our justice system, not an afterthought..”

Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP Liam McArthur added: “The Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service deserve credit for the work they have done reducing the court backlog but it is clear that when it comes to the most serious and complex cases there is still much to do.

“The consequences of delays is that everyone suffers: victims, witnesses and those accused."

Kate Wallace, chief executive of Victim Support Scotland, said the reduction in backlogs was “encouraging”.

But she said of the delays: “Families tell us this timeframe is unacceptable, traumatising and often they feel unable to grieve the loss of a family member during this long and protracted process.

“The scale of the backlog continues to have a huge negative impact on the health and wellbeing of any person affected by crime, and even more so for the most serious cases.

“With court proceedings being postponed multiple times, many victims feel unable to move on with their lives.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We welcome Audit Scotland’s report, which recognises the hard work of justice partners during the Covid pandemic and the significant progress made in reducing the subsequent backlog of criminal trials.

“We know how distressing delays to cases can be for all involved, and have been working with partners to mitigate the impact of the backlog.

“This includes expanding the use of pre-recorded evidence and introducing legal aid reforms to reduce the number of cases that need to proceed to trial.

“The Scottish Government will publish a delivery plan setting out further actions for the continued recovery and reform of the criminal justice system in the summer.”