OPEN LETTER FROM THE EDINBURGH BAR ASSOCIATION TO THE CABINET SECRETARY FOR JUSTICE AND HOME AFFAIRS RE DELAYS AT COURT
1st December 2023
Dear Ms Constance,
SCCPES PRISONER ESCORT CONTRACT
We write to in relation to the above and ongoing significant issues with the performance of GeoAmey at Edinburgh Sheriff Court in pursuance of their obligations in relation to the above contract.
When we met in July 2023 to discuss the Victims, Witnesses and Justice Reform (Scotland) Bill we raised with you briefly the ongoing issues with custodies being brought to court. You indicated you were aware of the issue. I am sure it has been raised with you multiple times. The issue has got significantly worse in Edinburgh over the last few months, and we feel compelled to bring this to your attention again.
Following a number of incidents in August 2023, the EBA was involved in discussions with SCTS and COPFS with a view to try to resolve the issues. A custody court users’ group was set up and chaired by a senior Sheriff. To put it shortly, there was nothing anyone in any capacity who appear at Edinburgh sheriff court on a daily basis could do to address the ongoing issues with GeoAmey.
These issues include:
· Tuesday 1st August – 20 custodies – Papers all available at 2:30pm – Court concluded at 7:15pm
· Monday 7th August – 30 custodies – Papers all available by 3pm; penultimate papers available at lunch time – Court concluded 9pm
· Tuesday 8th August – 15 custodies – Papers all available by 2:20pm – Court concluded at 5:54pm
· Monday 14th August – 34 custodies – Final papers available at 5:25pm due to a psychiatric assessment – Court concluded 8pm
· Monday 21st August – 32 custodies – Final papers available at 5:45pm again due to an assessment – Court concluded 8:15pm
All parties to those discussions were under the impression that GeoAmey were no longer being fined for breaches of their contract. There was even a suggestion that SPS had taken a decision to excuse GeoAmey from fines. If true, such a decision would seem remarkable.
In August 2023 the EBA felt compelled to take our own action to protect the health and wellbeing of our members. A protocol was introduced whereby EBA members insisted that a client was in the cell area of Edinburgh Sheriff court and able to be interviewed by our member with papers by 1730. If they were, our member would represent the client at the calling of the case in court irrespective of what time they appeared in court. If they were not so available at 1730, our member would leave. This also covers the duty lawyer when that is an EBA member.
This is a step we took with great reluctance. Our members do not wish to leave clients in custody unrepresented.
Subsequently on 12th September 2023, all 6 Sheriffs Principal produced a Practice Note in anticipation of ongoing issues with GeoAmey. In short, this states that the court should finish at 1900 on a Monday and 1800 on other days unless an accused is present with papers in court in which case the court will sit on.
We felt this would do little to assist the situation. The court will sit until 1900 or 1800 except when it sits later. If GeoAmey bring a van full of custodies into to Court at 1855 the court will sit on to process them. This will do nothing to stop the court sitting late into the evening. We wrote to the Sheriff Principal of Lothian and Borders on 19th September 2023to advise him of our concerns.
We regret to say our concerns were justified. In Edinburgh at least, the Practice note has done nothing to help. The issues with GeoAmey continue and have become more frequent. We list below the issues which have been documented by our Vice President for your consideration;
25-08-23 Accused in the building at 10am but no staff to bring them up to court until 2pm.
28-08-23 Only 8 GeoAmey staff in. GeoAmey not able to staff a split court to deal with 48 custodies. 48 police custodies, 15 in the building at 1435. Only 5 from St Leonards, 10 from Livingston.
29-08-23 GeoAmey refused to allow any custodies to enter the building until 10am due to not having 11 clear hours since they finished court the day before.
25-09-23 Last an arrived 1850. Court finished 2040.
09-10-23 14 custodies not available to be seen at 1730. 6 rolled over to next day.
16-10-23 10 custodies not in building by 1730. Court finished at 2100.
23-10-23 4 custodies still at St Leonards. Van had not left to collect them by 1721.
06-11-23 7 custodies not in at 1730. Papers available.
20-11-23 Full van still being unloaded at 1730. No-one able to be seen until van fully unloaded due to staffing issues at GeoAmey.
21-11-23 Last van in at 1630. 1 accused not on it.
22-11-23 Nobody in from St Leonards until 1700. Duty finished at 1845.
27-11-23 13 custodies not in by 1730. Some in at 0930 but papers not served until 1600.
30-11-23 1400 6 accused present. 8 sets of papers. Only 2 accused have papers.
Last van in at 1710. Court finished at 1935.
These exclusively relate to issues with new custodies being brought from police stations. You will see that 5 of these are within the last 10 days. We can provide other examples of trials being delayed but to accused not being brought in from prison on time.
On 21st November 2023 there was also the situation where a client was sentenced to a period of imprisonment had to wait in the dock for around 15 minutes for a member of GeoAmey staff to come and take him to the cells. Such a situation would be quite ridiculous, if it were not so dangerous to all those employed within the court building.
Police Scotland are consistently introducing new initiatives design to reduce the numbers of Police officers in the court building. Safety of those employed in the Justice System at Edinburgh Sheriff Court is being imperilled.
We trust that this illustrates the ongoing issues that our members face on a daily basis. We trust you agree that this is not acceptable. We extend an open invitation you and any of your colleagues to attend Edinburgh Sheriff Court with us on any day to view the issues for yourself.
The EBA were advised that there was a meeting between senior representatives of SPS, SCTS and COPFS at the end of September to discuss the issue. The EBA, Scottish Solicitors’ Bar Association and Law Society were not invited to the meeting. We are not aware of the outcome of the meeting and nothing seems to have changed following it.
It is clear that the issues must be addressed at a Ministerial level and we are writing to you to ask you to act. Whilst we understand that there may be no easy answers, the present situation cannot be allowed to continue until the end of the present contract.
We look forward to hearing from you in early course.
Jonathan Campbell Paul Smith
President Vice President
Edinburgh Bar Association Edinburgh Bar Association
Boycott of single judge trial pilot
The Edinburgh Bar Association (EBA) is the representative body for court practitioners in Edinburgh.
Today members of the Edinburgh Bar Association voted overwhelmingly to boycott the single judge rape trial pilot proposed by the Victims, Witnesses, and Justice Reform (Scotland) Bill published on 26th April 2023.
This is reflective of our profound concerns about the removal of a fundamental protection against miscarriages of justice in order to achieve a narrow political aim. Trial by jury is a cornerstone of our justice system. We try the most serious crimes before an anonymous group of 15 persons, from a wide variety of backgrounds who have the benefit of their collective life experience when reaching considered decisions on the allegations before them. To remove this civic function, in the proposed circumstances, demonstrates a lack of faith in the ability of the Scottish public to perform that role.
Our solicitors and solicitor advocates appear in courts across Scotland on a daily basis and have substantial collective experience of the operation of our justice system. We are committed to ensure that our system remains fair, balanced, transparent and free from unwarranted interference. In taking this stand we are acting to prevent miscarriages of justice. We support the similar stance taken by our colleagues across the country.
3rd May 2023