Solicitors are concerned and dissatisfied with a virtual custody court pilot, a survey has found.
Five courts were piloted in Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Falkirk, Glasgow and Saltcoats to allow prosecutions to continue during the Covid-19 crisis, with custody courts the first step when a person accused of a crime submits their plea.
An online survey of Law Society of Scotland members found 81% were either dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the client consultation process.
The majority of defence agents (78%) said they experienced problems in obtaining sight of papers or arranging client consultation, such as not being able to consult privately or being unable to identify if the client was vulnerable and needed additional support.
Amanda Millar, Law Society of Scotland president, said: “The coronavirus pandemic has created enormous challenges, with significant implications for the administration of justice.
“There has been huge effort to get courts back up and running while taking all necessary steps to minimise the risk of infection.
“There is a role for technology in the justice system and there may be some potential advantages to virtual custody courts beyond the immediate need for Covid-19 safety measures.”
She added: “However, the survey findings have highlighted a range of practical problems arising from the pilot, as well as issues resulting from the different approaches adopted by the pilot courts.
“These will have to be addressed before there can be any plans for a further roll-out.”
The survey received 144 responses, which the body said represents 10.4% of solicitors who are registered for criminal and/or criminal legal aid business in Scotland.
Solicitors were surveyed between June 30 and July 9 to gain a better understanding of their experience of virtual appearances which took place by telephone or video conference.
More than half (58%) indicated a preference for video over telephone with many suggesting the technology did not work well.
The Law Society has called for clarity from the Scottish Government, Police Scotland, the courts and Crown Office on any expansion or longer-term plans to keep the virtual custody courts.
Ms Millar said: “Custody court is a crucial stage in the prosecution process, which may ultimately lead to a trial and a criminal conviction, so we need to understand more fully how the proposed use of virtual custody courts impacts on the way that criminal justice is administered.
“Any proposed technological solution must provide assurance of secure, confidential communication between a solicitor and their client, otherwise there may be potential challenges in the future.
“We also have to recognise that even with a technological solution, virtual custody courts will not work for all clients, particularly if they are vulnerable, and the facilities to ensure face-to-face consultations and appearances must be provided.”
David Fraser, Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service chief operations officer, said video custody hearings were used for those in police custody with confirmed or suspected coronavirus to minimise spread, and the service wants these to become the norm for all applicable custody cases.
“We welcome the feedback from the Law Society based on solicitors’ experiences,” he said.
Mr Fraser added a pilot scheme at Glasgow Sheriff Court will refine the hearings and take account of matters raised including “the technical arrangements for consultation between the solicitor and accused, case scheduling, access to papers and best practice”.
He said: “The pilot will be evaluated before any decision is taken on a wider roll-out.”
Police Scotland chief superintendent Barry Blair also welcomed feedback from the society on the more than 450 virtual custody hearings so far.
He said the society sits on a national working group that will “assess how virtual court hearings can be improved to address capacity and case backlogs which place significant demand on the justice system”.
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said “further monitoring and evaluation of these pilots is necessary” before any final decisions are taken on future plans.