WITNESSES called to give evidence at Edinburgh Sheriff Court are being sent text messages to remind them to attend, as new figures reveal one in five fail to turn up.
The failure of witnesses to attend has been cited as a “major reason” for delays in court, while cases regularly collapse because of their non-attendance.
The text scheme, the first of its kind in Scotland, is being piloted in the Capital over the next four months to determine whether it will be rolled out elsewhere in the country.
Adrian Cottam, assistant procurator fiscal for Edinburgh, said: “A great many people now use their mobile phone as a primary means of communication, and this pilot will assess whether issuing direct reminders in this way will mark an improvement to the rate of witness attendance.”
Figures from last November show that 58 cases out of 288, or 20 per cent, were adjourned at Edinburgh Sheriff Court because witnesses were absent.
The pilot was welcomed today but calls were made for anyone failing to attend as witnesses without a valid excuse to be punished. Under the law, a witness who is summoned but fails to attend without “reasonable cause” can be fined a maximum of £1000 or jailed for up to 21 days. Text reminders will be sent to civilian and expert witnesses but not police or child witnesses, who are due to give evidence in sheriff summary trials.
The scheme, launched yesterday by the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, will see texts sent out three to four days prior to the trial date.
David McLetchie, Tory justice spokesman and Lothians MSP, said: “This is a good idea which will help improve attendance by the forgetful. However, let us not forget that sometimes non-attendance is wilful.
“In these cases, people who fail to turn up without a valid excuse should be punished because it only acts to undermine the justice system.”
Mr Cottam added: “It is always vital that the justice system keeps pace with technological developments, and this innovative pilot is one that we hope will have a real impact on the efficiency of the courts.”
The Crown Office said there were “many reasons” for witness non-attendance but in some cases it is thought people simply forget the date, perhaps having received their citation weeks or even months before the trial.
Figures also show 601 people were cited as “vulnerable” witnesses between April 2010 and March last year.
Among the high-profile prosecutions to collapse at Edinburgh Sheriff Court due to witnesses failing to appear was the case of seven men facing dog-fighting charges.
The accused, who included jailed drug gang leader Mark Richardson, had faced charges of attending a dog fight in Duddingston Park South in September 2009.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The Scottish Government welcomes the launch of this pilot, which we hope will improve witness attendance and speed up justice for victims.
“This initiative is part of the Making Justice Work programme, through which the Scottish Government is working with a range of partners, including the Crown Office, to deliver reforms that will improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our justice system.”