Covid-19 has resulted in many changes to our daily lives, both personally and professionally. The Scottish Courts have also had to adapt to how they deal with cases as a result of COVID-19. As a litigation solicitor in road traffic cases, I have been involved in cases across Scotland.
Courtrooms at home
Social distancing has meant the vast majority of workers are working from home and legal professionals are no different. Court hearings have taken place with solicitors addressing sheriffs from their homes either by teleconference or using WEBEX. I have found the primary method for dealing with procedural cases has been by using teleconferencing. My only experience with using WEBEX has been in the All Scotland Personal Injury Court.
I have found many benefits of using the teleconferencing method. At Jackson Boyd we represent clients in road traffic cases across Scotland. Previously, we would be paying local agents to appear on our behalf or travelling to the relevant court (which could involve lengthy hours driving or travelling by plane to some of the Scottish Islands). The Coronavirus legislation has meant the requirement to appear in court in person has been dispensed with. The changes have meant we are not paying local agent fees or having to pay significant travel costs to attend court in person. In addition, the principal agent has been able to appear ‘virtually’ before the Sheriff which I have found often assists the court in dealing with cases. Finally, the changes have resulted in increased productivity because solicitors can deal with other matters until the set time for the hearing instead of travelling or waiting for the court to start. Parties have also been able to submit written submissions in advance of the hearing which has also meant some cases have been able to be progressed administratively without the solicitors having to attend the ‘Virtual’ Court.
Appearance in Court
Since September, I have been involved in evidential hearings in Glasgow Sheriff Court. Glasgow Sheriff Court has been dealing with procedural cases by teleconference and evidential hearings are proceeding in person.
Before the pandemic, all of the cases would call at 10am for a call-over. The Sheriff would run through all of the cases (dealing with procedural matters first and then moving onto the cases calling for evidential hearings). Often parties would be waiting for over one hour before any evidential hearings could start.
To allow for social distancing, procedural hearings are now progressing by teleconference. If an evidential hearing is required then parties are provided with a set date and time to appear for their hearing and only one case will call at any one time. This has been of benefit because there is less waiting time for cases to start.
What changes have been made to the Courts?
If you are attending court in person then you are required to wear a mask in the court building. A solicitor or witness can only remove their mask when they are within the court room and addressing the Sheriff or Sheriff Clerk.
Individuals are encouraged to maintain a 2 metre distance at all times. The seating areas have been clearly marked so individuals know where they can sit and still allow a 2 metre distance from other people.
When you arrive at the court building, there is a one way system marked out in front of the reception area so you can confirm where your case is due to call.
There is some waiting areas for witnesses. However, I have found there has been the occasional problem with finding a place for civil witnesses to wait whilst their cases are being called.
What are the negatives?
At Jackson Boyd, we would encourage our trainee solicitors to attend Court with more experienced solicitors so they can watch and learn other solicitors in action. Trainee Solicitors are no longer being able to see the callover or attend at procedural/ evidential hearings to see how other solicitors approach cases and address the Sheriff. The restrictions are also having an impact on the ability of trainee solicitors to network with defence solicitors who they would routinely come across at court.
The social distancing rules also prevent clients from sitting beside their solicitor during the evidential hearing. Clients can no longer pass on notes or whisper instructions to their solicitor due to the social distancing restrictions.
The other drawback is the different approaches taking by the different Sheriffdoms in Scotland. At Jackson Boyd, we have found there is not a unified response by the different Sheriffdoms. We have found that certain types of cases (e.g. summary cause personal injury claims) are being progressed in some Sheriffdoms but then being placed on hold in other Sheriffdoms. The different approaches has meant it has become increasingly difficult to provide clients with timescales on when an evidential hearing is likely to be fixed in their cases.