Scrapping local jury trials is ‘abhorrent’
Duncan Burd, managing director of Anderson MacArthur, a long-established firm with offices in Stornoway and Portree, was reacting to the announcement that jury trials in island courts, including those in Stornoway and Lochmaddy, will be scrapped until further notice.
Ironically, jury trials returned to Stornoway Sheriff Court only this week but any which have not yet been scheduled will now be moved to Inverness.
The decision comes against the backdrop of wider disruption within the court system in Scotland, which has failed to recover from a Covid backlog, and also reinforces concerns over increasing centralisation of the system.
The removal of jury trials from island courts is said to be as a result of staffing issues with the security contractor GEOAmey, a Manchester-based company contracted by the Scottish Government to provide escort services between custody and court.
The Law Society of Scotland, the representative body for solicitors, have now called for urgent action to prevent the disruption they say will ensue from “sidelining” island courts. They said that at the root of problem was issues with GEOAmey.
Speaking to the Gazette, Mr Burd said: “It’s hard to know exactly who benefits from this but from the point of view of justice being served as close to the communities as possible - an established principle, or what was an established principle anyway - it is abhorrent.
“I warned some years ago of increasing centralisation in our justice system in Scotland and here it is in action. It is a further erosion of services in the islands.
“You now have a situation where the accused and the witnesses will have to make their way to Inverness, incurring expenditure and time most people can ill afford. Secondly, given they are likely to be from the same community, they may well end up travelling together, which is obviously far from ideal for all sorts of reasons”.
He added: “But even the justification that it is a result of lack of manpower at GEOAmey doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The summary custody trials will still be held in Stornoway and Lochmaddy or wherever, so GEOAmey will still have to transport people from custody over to the islands on a regular basis, so there’s hardly going to be a great saving.
“Having mainland juries for island cases also goes against a fundamental principle of the justice system - that it should be undertaken as close to the affected communities as possible. I just hope this wrong-headed decision is somehow reversed.”
The importance of retaining local jury trials was underlined just this week, with two being held at Stornoway Sheriff Court - one of which relates to charges for serious assault to danger of life, with permanent disfigurement.
Jury trials were reasonably commonplace in Lewis pre-Covid while even at Lochmaddy, which serves a much smaller population, around two a year were the previous norm.
The removal order was issued by Sheriff Principal Derek Pyle. Jury trials which had already been assigned to island courts prior to the instruction will still go ahead.
The Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service commented: “Due to the ongoing staffing challenges being faced by GeoAmey in delivering the prisoner escort service, we are engaging with justice organisations to minimise the impact on the operation of court business.”
Law Society of Scotland President Sheila Webster said that at the root of the problem were the working arrangements of GEOAmey and said that solicitors have described the level of service being provided by the company as “disgraceful, with hours-long delays commonplace"
“A solution must be found urgently so the provision of criminal justice can return to normal," she said. “These major-scale delays are undermining access to justice and causing significant hardship for solicitors and everyone else interacting with our criminal justice system.
“We’re particularly concerned at the total upheaval caused to solemn matters in the Grampian, Highland and Islands Sheriffdom. Scotland’s local sheriff courts are a fundamental part of our criminal justice system, and they must not be sidelined by failures such as those we’re currently seeing”.