Orkney MSP Liam McArthur has called on the Scottish Government to commit to the necessary action to protect rural access to justice, as new Sheriffs Principal guidance extends the use of ‘virtual custody’ courts allowing accused persons to attend court via video link from prison.
After jury trials were suspended in Kirkwall and other rural courts last month due to prison transport staffing issues, Mr McArthur wrote to the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Angela Constance, demanding urgent action to allow jury trials to resume as soon as possible.
In her response letter dated 19 September, Ms Constance said that three meetings have been held between partners in late August and early September to mitigate the impact of staffing issues. She also highlighted new Sheriffs Principal guidance, effective from the same day as her letter, which extended the use of virtual custody courts, reducing the need to transport prisoners.
A report from the Law Society of Scotland in 2020 found that 81% of solicitors with experience of virtual custody courts were either dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the experience, highlighting the difficulty of effectively communicating with clients.
Commenting, Mr McArthur said:
“It is good to hear that the Scottish Government as well as the Courts and Prison Services are giving this issue the attention it deserves. But local access to justice must be prioritised.
“While virtual custody trials might perhaps be a necessary stopgap to reduce prison transport, solicitors have been clear that it hinders their ability to represent their clients. And it does not fix the underlying fragility of our courts system, that has allowed one contractor’s staffing issue to halt jury trials across the islands.
“In the short term, we need an urgent resolution to prisoner transport issues to return justice to the isles. But the only long-term solution is investment and support for the prisons and courts systems to place them on a robust and sustainable footing."