Scottish Daily Mail

Justice risks being a ‘mirage’

- By John Paul Breslin

A LEADING advocate has warned that civil courts must resume soon or else ‘access to justice will become a mirage’.

Eoghainn MacLean said there is a concern ‘widely held among advocates and solicitors’ that civil justice has ‘stalled’ since late last month – at present, the only civil cases taking place in Scotland are those deemed to be urgent.

However, Mr MacLean said that civil cases are still going ahead in England, even when they involve multiple witnesses and extensive evidence.

He said: ‘The lockdown is going to go on for weeks and months. If we in Scotland don’t catch up with England, then hearings will be put off indefinite­ly and access to justice will become a mirage.’

Mr MacLean said the great majority of civil courts in Scotland use hard copies of documents instead of electronic versions and have witnesses, parties and lawyers attending in person.

As such, he said the Scottish Government needs to commit the resources required to ensure a swift change to e-document and video conferenci­ng technology.

Mr MacLean said: ‘If the money and resources are allocated to it, there is a huge enthusiasm for it.’

The Scottish Government has unveiled a range of options to end the current suspension of the most serious criminal court cases, such as murder and rape.

Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf will hold talks with the legal industry before outlining his preferred approach when Holyrood returns after the Easter recess. A similar review of how to operate civil justice amid the current crisis is also being conducted.

Earlier this month, Roddy Dunlop, QC, Vice-Dean of the Faculty of Advocates, said that – as is happening in England – hearings in Scotland could be accommodat­ed within government coronaviru­s guidance by the use of video and other technology.

Mr Dunlop said this week that there had been ‘very encouragin­g discussion­s’ with the chief executive and digital director of the Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service (SCTS), which had raised his ‘optimism for an early resumption of business’.

The Scottish Government said: ‘The operation of the courts is a matter for the independen­t SCTS, who have our full support as they deal with the unique operationa­l challenges and social impacts of Covid-19.’

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