Jury trials will restart in Scottish cinemas later this month, amid a huge backlog of cases caused by the coronavirus outbreak, the Scottish Court and Tribunals Service (SCTS) has announced today.
A remote Jury Centre, held on September 28 at the ODEON cinema in Fort Kinnaird, Edinburgh, will be the first of its kind in the UK.
Jury citations have now been issued for the first three High Court trials to be supported by the Edinburgh Jury Centre, and will be conducted from courtrooms at Lawnmarket, Edinburgh, Edinburgh Sheriff Court and Livingston Sheriff Court.
Remote jury trials will start in Glasgow on October 12.
A decade of backlogged cases
The SCTS hopes that having jurors remote from the court building will allow High Court trials to operate at pre-Covid-19 business levels.
Last month Eric McQueen, Chief Executive, Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service warned MSPs that the current backlog of sheriff court cases could take a decade to clear.
He told Holyrood's justice committee: "We now have our full programme of courts back up and running as of August - that's running about 33 trial courts a day.
"What we would see is a gradual reduction in that backlog of about 2,000 a year but just simply running 33 trial courts a day would take a period of eight to 10 years to come back to the pre-Covid levels."
Why were cinemas chosen for remote jury trials?
Cinemas were chosen following an extensive search for suitable venues on the recommendation of the “Restarting Solemn Trials Working Group”.
The SCTS found that cinemas have pre-existing, high levels of digital connectivity and extremely secure IT infrastructure.
It also said cinemas offer sound-proofed accommodation, which is important for jury deliberations, and are able to provide accommodation for the entire contract duration along with resilience arrangements.
How will remote jury trials work?
As part of the contract, SCTS will have exclusive access to the cinema complexes between Monday and Friday. The selected cinemas will remain open for cinema-goers at weekends from Friday 6pm through to Sunday night.
Meanwhile on the SCTS court estate, courtrooms are being fitted out with the cameras and technology necessary to broadcast the trials to the cinema screens and to receive the video wall of jurors into the courtroom.
Balloting the jury is done in the court room in advance without the jurors being present in a building. Only the 15 jurors balloted, plus a small number of substitutes, will arrive at the Jury Centre for the trial, with each jury being supported by a court officer. Each remote jury room is directly supported by technical specialists to ensure continuity of proceedings.
Jurors will sit physically distanced in the raked seats and are presented with four views on the cinema screen. At all times the screen will show the judge and the accused, with the other screens showing witnesses, prosecutor/defence or evidence.
Physical distancing measures
The jury deliberation takes place in the same cinema room - with physically distanced tables and chairs linked by microphones.
Masks will be available to jurors on arrival for this purpose but will not be required to be worn in the jury room. Specified cleaning will take place daily and at transitional handovers on Friday evenings and Monday mornings.
“We need to move swiftly to increase the number of High Court trials”
Eric McQueen, Chief Executive, Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service said: “We are grateful to ODEON Cinemas for working alongside us to make the concept of Remote Jury Centres a reality.
“We need to move swiftly to increase the number of High Court trials taking place and we will do this incrementally as soon as we can.
“The next couple of weeks will involve testing and familiarisation visits from all professional trial participants and supporters.
“It is important for everyone involved in these trials to understand the set-up and functionality of the centres and their relationship with the court room.
“For the jurors who will be taking part in these cases we have to reassure them of the steps we have taken to support them to undertake their civic duty during this time of COVID-19.”
“Vibrant return to full scale criminal trials”
Ronnie Renucci QC, Vice-Dean of Faculty and the President of the Scottish Criminal Bar Association, member of the Working Group 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."
“The Scottish Criminal Bar welcomes and applauds the vibrant return to full scale criminal trials that the innovative Jury Centre solution represents.
“Remote Jury Centres break new ground and will be of the keenest interest to other nations wrestling with the havoc wreaked by Covid on adversarial justice systems around the World."
Crown Agent David Harvie, Chief Executive of the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, said: “The opening of these jury centres is an important step which will allow for the number of High Court trials held to come back up to pre-pandemic levels.
“Work across the justice system on tackling the accumulated case load continues, and innovative measures such as this will bring real benefits for people who are waiting for cases to come to trial.”