Virtual trials group report calls for domestic abuse online courts

Jan 21, 2022

The Virtual Trials National Project Board has issued its report on the piloting of virtual summary trials which recommends that specialist online courts be set up to tackle domestic abuse cases.

The Board, led by Sheriff Principal Derek Pyle of Grampian, Highland and Islands, suggests that every Sheriffdom across Scotland should have a dedicated virtual summary court for domestic abuse cases, in their findings presented to the Lord Justice General, the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service (SCTS) and the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans.

The report reviews the experience gained in the virtual summary trials project, established by SCTS in May 2021 which held trials in Inverness and Aberdeen, and sets out the knowledge gained from the pilot, the options for decision makers and the practical consequences in terms of resources and legislative change required to progress with its recommendations.

It finds that the introduction of a dedicated virtual summary court for domestic abuse cases offers key advantages in:

  • Increasing protection and reducing trauma for complainers;
  • Making it easier for witnesses to give their evidence;
  • Offering efficiencies in reducing the need for individuals to travel to court and leaving existing courtroom capacity free for in-person cases;
  • Mitigating the impact of delays caused by the Coronavirus pandemic on complainers and accused in domestic abuse cases which form around a quarter of all summary cases;
  • Maintaining consistency with the aims of capturing best evidence and introducing trauma-informed practices as recommended in the Lord Justice Clerk’s recent report on sexual offences and the SCTS Evidence and Procedure Review.

The Board, which included representation from across the justice system including defence agents and victims groups, carefully examined whether virtual trials can ensure that an accused receives a fair trial and concluded that they can. No Board member expressed concern over the assessing of credibility and reliability of witnesses in virtual trials and the report also determined that SCTS had delivered acceptable standards of audio and visual quality in the hearings and, subject to appropriate resourcing, can do so in the future.

Feedback on the pilot virtual hearings from victims groups was overwhelmingly positive and took the view that virtual trials should have a place as part of a responsible, modern justice system, particularly given the benefits they can offer for victims.

Welcoming the report, the Lord Justice General, Lord Carloway, told the Board: “I fully support the recommendation of the Virtual Trials National Project Board that a virtual domestic abuse summary trial court should be established in each Sheriffdom. The pilot has clearly established the merit of this proposal. I congratulate the Project Board for their hard work and dedication to the project and their innovative and progressive thinking.”

SCTS Executive Director of Court Operations David Fraser said: “SCTS welcomes the Board’s findings and we look forward to working with our partners to see how we can implement them. The report highlights the key advantages that arise from being able to have those involved in a case remote from court and is another important step forward in improving services for vulnerable witnesses and complainers.”

Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans Keith Brown said: “I welcome this report and the opportunity it presents to mitigate the impact of delays caused by the Coronavirus pandemic on victims of domestic abuse, as well as reducing trauma.  The involvement of a wide range of stakeholders in these discussions highlights the benefits which the model could help to realise, with the support of the whole criminal justice system and the active participation of victim support organisations. 

“The Scottish Government is committed to tackling domestic abuse and holding perpetrators to account for their actions.  We also want to ensure that those who come forward to give evidence can do so in ways which are trauma informed and person centred.”

Victim Support Scotland Chief Executive Kate Wallace said: “We welcome the outcome of this report, with recommendations made that online courts are available for domestic abuse cases.

 “This change is long overdue. People we support in domestic abuse situations, have given feedback that this way of giving evidence is more appropriate, more trauma-informed and also means they will not come face-to-face with the accused in court.

 “Many victims who have come through the criminal justice system have found going to court as traumatic as the crime itself. This is unacceptable. Being able to give evidence virtually puts choice and control back into the hands of people who have suffered from domestic abuse, which is especially important following the traumatic aftermath of crime.

 “It is encouraging that the positive results we have seen with evidence being given this way, has been acknowledged within the report. We look forward to continuing this important work alongside our colleagues across the Scottish courts, to ensure this change is rolled out as soon as possible and is available in the future to everyone impacted by crime.”

The report is available via this link.

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