Coronavirus: Courtroom backlog 'could take years to clear'

  • Published
social distancing sign at courtImage source, PA Media
Image caption,
The backlog of court cases has grown during lockdown

A backlog of sheriff court cases in Scotland could take up to a decade to clear without extra capacity being created, MSPs have been told.

Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service (SCTS) chief executive Eric McQueen told MSPs there were already 14,000 outstanding cases before lockdown.

He said the figure was expected to rise to 27,000 by the end of the month.

Mr McQueen said discussions were ongoing with ministers for extra funding to help deal with the backlog.

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."

Image source, PA Media
Image caption,
Social distancing measures are now in place in Scottish courtrooms

Mr McQueen said discussions were continuing with the Scottish government to provide the funding for a 25% increase in capacity in sheriff jury trials, which he said would reduce the backlog in just three years.

Another measure being looked at is the running of trial courts at the weekends, which Mr McQueen said would wipe out the backlog in two years.

He added: "All of these things have an impact on not just the court but on prosecutors, defence and third-sector organisations, and as you can imagine there'll need to be quite significant discussions over the next short number of weeks and months to find the best solution that meets the needs and the resources that are available to all the organisations."

High court backlog

In terms of the jury trial business in the high courts, Mr McQueen reported that 390 trials were waiting to be heard before lockdown, which he described as a "normal number".

That figure is expected to increase to about 750 by the end of this month and, dependent on what mitigation is put in place, could rise to as high as 1,400 in the next few years.

Again, Mr McQueen advocated an increase in capacity to make sure that trials were heard, including increasing the number of jury courts in Scotland from 16 to 25.

He added: "If we were able to do that, we would reduce the backlogs in the high court and bring that back to normal within two years."

Last week, the SCTS announced plans to host juries in cinemas, where they will hear trials remotely, in a bid to ensure that cases can be heard promptly.