An ambitious new model for summary criminal court procedure may vastly reduce the number of court hearings, reduce court ‘churn’ and limit the numbers of witnesses required to appear.
This new model, detailed in the paper “Evidence and Procedure Review - A New Model For Summary Criminal Court Procedure” outlines how procedure could be transformed to use modern technology and put a new emphasis on case management. This in turn would reduce the frustration and costs of current summary criminal court "churn", where cases do not proceed as planned, with repeated court hearings before moving onto the next stage. This churn is not only inefficient but creates stress and uncertainty for those involved in proceedings, particularly victims and witnesses.
The new paper suggests that much of the procedure that is currently conducted in court rooms can and should be conducted digitally, with stricter case management rules and set timescales at the core of the process. Under the propositions:
- As a general rule, all pre-trial procedure should take place as part of a digital case management process. Court hearings should only be used for contested pre-trial preliminary pleas or case management issues. Particular arrangements will be required for cases where the accused is in custody or does not have legal representation.
- An intermediate diet and trial diet should not be allocated (and witnesses should not be cited) upon the lodging of a not guilty plea as is the situation at present. Trial diets should only be allocated (and witnesses cited) after the case management process is complete. This should mean fewer witnesses, including police witnesses, are cited and inconvenienced.
- Strong judicial oversight of the case management process should be applied to bring about more agreement of evidence where possible, and to ensure summary trials focus on what is truly in dispute.
- In those cases in which guilty pleas are tendered, there should be the option for sentencing to be conducted digitally without the need for a court appearance on the part of the accused, but only if the Sheriff/JP deems it appropriate.
Introducing the report, the SCTS Chief Executive, Eric McQueen, said:
“With the digital age well and truly upon us, we are surrounded by technology that shapes our lives, connects us and transforms the way that we conduct and transact business online. Against this background we have the opportunity to reconsider fundamentally how our services are delivered.
"It is fair to say that our summary criminal court procedure has not kept pace with such innovation. Our criminal courts, with their origins in the Victorian times, still rely heavily on paper transactions, postal-based practices and bringing people together in a court room for procedural hearings and trials, many months after an incident. As recent Audit Scotland reports have highlighted, this brings inherent inefficiency, delay and inconvenience.
"I am pleased to introduce this paper which describes what a new summary criminal court process could look like underpinned by digital case management.
"Our task now is to bring our summary criminal court procedure right into the 21st Century, not by tinkering at the edges, but by radical digital transformation to improve the quality of justice for all concerned. I am convinced that by having the right dialogue with the right people, we can realise that possibility.”
What happens next?
SCTS will lead programme of public discussion events in relation to the Report during Spring 2017 (details of these events will be published in due course on the SCTS website). Following this period of engagement SCTS will report to the Justice Board with recommendations.
Notes for editors
Less serious criminal offences are prosecuted on summary complaint before a court of summary jurisdiction - that is a sheriff, summary sheriff or justice of the peace sitting alone (without a jury). In 2015/16 there were just over 125,000 summary complaints raised in Scottish courts.
The paper follows publication of two previous reports under the Evidence and Procedure Review: “The Evidence and Procedure Review Report” on 13 March 2015 and the “Evidence and Procedure Review: Next Steps” paper on 26 February 2016.
The model in the paper was developed by a Working Group consisting of experienced professionals from across the justice sector.
Audit Scotland has previously published two reports relating to the efficiency of summary and sheriff court proceedings: “An overview of Scotland’s Criminal Justice System” published September 2011, and “Efficiency of Prosecuting Criminal Cases Through the Sheriff Courts” published September 2015.
Full detailed report on proposals at http://www.scotcourts.gov.uk/evidence-and-procedure-review