Courtroom Drama on the Big Screen: Scottish cinemas to house juries to clear case backlog

September 26, 2020

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3 min read

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What's going on here?

In order to clear a backlog of criminal law cases, the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service (SCTS) has announced plans to have juries hear High Court trials in selected Odeon cinemas. Jurors will remotely observe trials in an environment that is compliant with social distancing regulations.

What does this mean?

The High Court of Justiciary is Scotland’s highest criminal court. It hears the most serious criminal cases (mainly murder and rape charges) in front of a 15-person jury. The coronavirus pandemic has put its trials on hold, which has caused an estimated backlog of 750 cases. For courts in England and Wales, the problem is even more severe (to see our article on that, click here).

Earlier in the year, the Restarting Solemn Trials Working Group was established by the Scottish Government to consider how jury trials could operate in line with social distancing regulations. On the Group’s recommendation, the SCTS struck a £5.5m deal to repurpose Odeon’s Edinburgh and Glasgow sites as remote jury centres. High Court trials will take place in the usual courtrooms and be broadcast via video link onto cinema screens for jurors to watch remotely.

The SCTS explained that Odeon cinemas are suitable venues because they offer strong digital connectivity and secure IT infrastructure, as well as sufficient space and soundproofing for jurors to sit physically distanced and make their deliberations.

Other possible solutions included reducing the jury count to seven and scrapping jury trials altogether for the duration of the pandemic. The latter proposal was dropped by the Scottish Government after it provoked fierce opposition, but not before it was also considered for courts in England and Wales (to see our articles on that, click here and here).

What's the big picture effect?

This story highlights the need to resume jury trials by whatever means. Trial delays can have a devastating impact on victims, accused persons, witnesses and public faith in the justice system. Rape Crisis Scotland, a charity which represents victims of sexual violence, has condemned the prolonged trial delays during the pandemic. It says that its members feel “trapped” and unable to move on with their lives. Criminal charges hanging over accused persons can adversely affect their mental health, hinder their employment prospects and put a strain on their relationships. Witnesses’ memories of alleged offences may also fade, diminishing the system’s effectiveness in delivering justice.

If the remote jury centre model proves successful in cinemas, it could be expanded into other venues such as conference rooms, concert venues and nightclubs. In addition to scaling up trial capacity, this would make productive use of establishments which are currently out of use, providing them with a much-needed income stream. However, the model presents possible tech and data protection issues. On the other hand, the jury is considered the cornerstone of the modern justice system. It dates back as far as 1215, when the Magna Carta set out an individual’s right to “the lawful judgment of his peers”. Amending its format or scrapping it entirely would arguably erode fundamental principles of our justice system and undermine the right to a fair trial.

Every aspect of society must adapt to the challenges posed by the pandemic, and the justice system is no exception. Courts need to find a way to safely and fairly begin clearing the case backlog, and they need to do it now.

Report written by Isobel Deane

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