Report recommends virtual courts to deal with domestic abuse cases across Scotland

Specialist online courts should be set up to deal with domestic abuse cases, a report has recommended.

The Virtual Trials National Project Board said that creating such courts could increase protection and reduce trauma for complainers and make it easier for witnesses to give their evidence.

The board recommends that every sheriffdom in Scotland should have a dedicated virtual court for summary domestic abuse cases – those heard by a sheriff sitting without a jury.

Its new report reviews the experience gained in the virtual summary trials project, established by the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service (SCTS) in May 2021, which held trials in Inverness and Aberdeen.

The report, which has been welcomed by victims’ organisations, found that introducing online courts for domestic abuse cases could help mitigate delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic, which has led to a backlog in cases.

The Board, led by Derek Pyle, Sheriff Principal of Grampian, Highland and Islands, has presented the findings to the Lord Justice General, Lord Carloway, SCTS and Justice Secretary, Keith Brown.

Lord Carloway (pictured) said: “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.”

The report states there are about 33,000 summary trials outstanding, compared to about 14,000 pre-pandemic, and that about one quarter of all outstanding summary trials are domestic abuse cases.

It said that online trials could help with efficiency by reducing the need for people to travel to court, thus leaving existing courtroom capacity free for in-person cases.

However, it acknowledged that there would be challenges such as the need for more staff, while legislative change would be needed to create “in effect, a presumption in favour of domestic abuse trials by electronic means”.

The board, which featured representation from across the justice system including defence agents and victims’ groups, carefully examined whether virtual trials can ensure that an accused person receives a fair trial, and concluded that they can.

Victim Support Scotland chief executive, Kate Wallace, welcomed the report.

She said: “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.”

SCTS said it looks forward to working with its partners to see how the board’s recommendations can be implemented.

Justice Secretary, 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.”

He added: “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.”

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