I welcome the recent report that was published by the Justice Committee, entitled “Re-opening Scotland’s courts and tribunals system”. In common with the report, the Scottish Government recognises the scale of the challenge with regard to the backlog of court cases. Administrations across the United Kingdom and beyond face such challenges. For example, in England and Wales, the outstanding workload in the magistrates courts was up to 520,000 cases in August.
As I emphasised to the committee, the estimate that it would take a decade to deal with the backlog in Scotland was based on a do-nothing scenario, which is clearly not the approach that we are taking.
We have provided the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service with additional funding of £5.5 million to set up ground-breaking jury centres for High Court trials, which start this week. We are optimistic that we will see up to 16 jury rooms available for High Court trials before the end of November—that is at pre-Covid capacity. We are also working with the SCTS to enable the jury centre model to be rolled out for sheriff and jury trials. I hope to say more about that later this week.
The chief executive of the SCTS, Eric McQueen, has confirmed to me that positive progress is being made in recovering volumes of summary business within the sheriff courts. In September, the number of summary trials that progressed with evidence led was at 80 per cent of pre-Covid levels.
Although those are positive developments, we must be realistic about the scale of the backlog and the time and action that will be required to recover fully. I will, of course, update Parliament on the progress of that work in my response to the committee’s report.
We have to remember that, for every criminal trial that is delayed, there is a victim waiting for justice. The reality is that most of the backlog in Scotland was built up before the coronavirus hit. The latest figures show that over 80 per cent of the 22,000 trials that were scheduled at the end of June were carried over from March. The committee’s report said:
“Covid-19 and lockdown has not created the problem of a backlog in cases, rather it has deepened an already existing problem.”
Why was the backlog already so big? Why has it taken a pandemic for the Scottish National Party to start to take it seriously? Does the cabinet secretary accept that the failure to address that has failed thousands of victims?
I say to Liam Kerr in all seriousness that, when it comes to the issue of courts and victims, he is not in the best books of the victims organisations, because of the approach that his party has taken.
I would not suggest that the Government has not done anything to address the backlog; I have given Liam Kerr details of where we have done that.
I have referenced the fact that, in England, there was a pre-Covid backlog of 407,000 cases in the magistrates courts.
Liam Kerr asked for the reasons why there are backlogs in court cases. They exist because of things such as the rise in sexual offences cases going through the courts. Such things are not, of course, unique to Scotland.
Liam Kerr is right: we should look to address the issue. One thing that the pandemic has taught us is to look to take innovative approaches, such as external jury rooms and investment in technology for virtual courtrooms. We will take forward some of the work that was being done pre-Covid—for example, Lady Dorrian’s group’s work on how to manage sexual offences cases through our courts. That work was delayed because of Covid, but I hope that it will continue to progress.
We will continue to do that work. I hope that Liam Kerr understands that, with the unprecedented challenges of Covid in the past six months, the first priority has been to ensure that the backlog does not get any bigger. I hope that I have demonstrated that through the actions that I outlined in my first answer. If we are getting into a position to contain the backlog, I hope that we can make progress in diminishing it further over the years.
I hear what the cabinet secretary says, but I do not think that victims or the wider public will be reassured that the situation is under control.
The cabinet secretary talks of some possible actions, but I will specifically talk about sentence discounts, whereby a criminal gets a shorter sentence in return for an early guilty plea. Victim Support Scotland has made it clear that further discounts would cause “more confusion and upset” for victims, and I agree. The cabinet secretary is on record as saying that he is “wary” of increasing discounts, but victims will expect a cast-iron guarantee that such a soft-touch approach will not be countenanced. Will the cabinet secretary make that promise today?
Again, the question shows the challenge that we are facing. On the one hand, Liam Kerr says that the Government must do something; on the other hand, he says that the Government must not do X, Y and Z. He does not present a solution, which is fair enough, because
opposition is really easy. The tough job is being in government and making really difficult decisions.
I appreciate Liam Kerr’s position, but he has not offered a single solution. I suggest that he go back and read the Justice Committee’s report, which he would have been involved in. My evidence is included in that report. I said that we are considering a number of areas, one of which is the possible adjustment of sentencing powers, which is something that Liam Kerr’s party has urged us to look at. We are also looking at investing in virtual technology. However, let us get to the crux of the issue—we have to ensure that the backlog does not increase any further. I have just given Liam Kerr a fairly detailed answer about how we are doing that across High Court trials, sheriff and jury trials and summary trials. That is our immediate priority, and then we will continue to consider how we can further invest in other solutions.
To answer Liam Kerr’s direct question, the consideration of discounts is not something that I am actively pursuing at this stage.