POPCORN AND PRISON SENTENCES UNDER ONE ROOF?

Judges Lord Keane and Lady Angiolini pictured at a ceremony in Edinburgh. Above Lords Doherty, Matthews and Gill. Pictures by Bill Heaney

BY CLAIRE MEADOWS

The first UK trials to be conducted with juries sitting in selected ODEON cinemas will start later this month.

The move, a first of its kind, will see trials get underway in Scotland on 28 September in Edinburgh (Fort Kinnaird) and from 12 October across the Clyde in Braehead, Renfrewshire.

The Remote Jury Centres are a first in the United Kingdom and will see jurors watching proceedings remote from the court building in selected ODEON cinemas in an effort to maintain jury trials amid social distancing concerns.

In respect of the Edinburgh Jury Centre, citations have now been issued for the first three High Court trials will live-streamed proceedings taking place from courtrooms at Lawnmarket, Edinburgh, Edinburgh Sheriff Court and Livingston Sheriff Court.

QCs, advocates and sheriffs processing at the opening of the legal year.

Eric McQueen, Chief Executive of the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service (SCTS), said that cinemas were chosen to host Jury Centres following an extensive search for suitable venues.  

He said: “We are grateful to ODEON Cinemas for working alongside us to make the concept of Remote Jury Centres a reality. We need to move swiftly to increase the number of High Court trials taking place and we will do this incrementally as soon as we can.

“The next couple of weeks will involve testing and familiarisation visits from all professional trial participants and supporters. It is important for everyone involved in these trials to understand the set-up and functionality of the centres and their relationship with the court room.  For the jurors who will be taking part in these cases we have to reassure them of the steps we have taken to support them to undertake their civic duty during this time of COVID-19.”

The arrangements have been approved by a working party chaired by Scotland’s second most senior judge, the lord justice clerk Lady Dorrian, pictured right.

SCTS has pointed to the fact that cinemas have pre-existing, high levels of digital connectivity and extremely secure IT infrastructure. They offer sound-proofed accommodation which is important for jury deliberations and are able to provide accommodation for the entire contract duration along with resilience arrangements.

As part of the contract, SCTS will have exclusive access to the cinema complexes between Monday to Friday. The selected cinemas will remain open for cinema-goers at weekends from 6pm on Friday through to Sunday night. Jurors will sit physically distanced in the seats and are presented with four views on the cinema screen. At all times the screen will show the judge and the accused, with the other screens showing witnesses, prosecutor/defence or evidence. Masks will be available to jurors on arrival but will not be required to be worn in the jury room. Specified cleaning will take place daily and at transitional handovers on Friday evenings and Monday mornings.

The move to remote juries in Scotland is a radical solution to the need for social distancing among jury members and a backlog of High Court cases exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis. Measures to tackle the problem in England and Wales were announced by Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) earlier this week with controversial measures included to extend Custody Time Limits for suspects.  Measures announced in England also include an increase in the use of video hearings and the employment of 1,600 extra court staff to support the recovery measures. So far 10 Nightingale Courts have opened in England in an effort to clear a backlog of hearings. 8 more are due to open in September and October.

The Society of Editors has this week highlighted criticism from legal commentators that the decision to extend the time in which suspects can be held before trial will result in innocent people pleading guilty to avoid lengthy custody stays. The rise of video hearings has also seen Tristan Kirk, Courts Correspondent for the London Evening Standard, speak to the editors this week about the need to continue journalistic access to remote hearings post-pandemic.

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