The Auditor General for Scotland said it would take until March 2026, six years after the virus outbreak began, for jury trials to return to stable levels.
Stephen Boyle said that while the Scottish court system responded quickly and effectively to the lockdown, there was still a large backlog to clear, including at murder and rape trials.
Despite “significant progress”, victims, witnesses and defendants – an increasing number of whom remain in custody – would suffer significant waiting times.
Mr Boyle criticized the Scottish Government for failing to publish a three-year implementation plan, which he said was “essential” to its vision of reforming the criminal justice system.
The release is supposed to be last August, now it is expected sometime in the summer.
In a report today, the Auditor General commends the joint work of the Scottish Government, courts, prosecutors, Legal Aid, police and prisons at the start of the pandemic.
Funding from the Scottish Government of £100m helped set up jury centers in cinemas and additional courts, using models to help clear a fast-growing court backlog.
Prior to the pandemic, there were typically 20,000 cases pending, more than 80 percent of them summary trials before a JP or a no-jury sheriff, including traffic offenses, dishonesty offenses, grievous bodily harm and domestic violence.
However, by January 2022 the total had more than doubled to 43,606 outstanding cases, of which 40,860 were summary cases.
The total then began to decline, totaling 24,946 as of February this year, of which 4,305 were due to go before a JP and 20,641 to a sheriff without a jury.
However, the backlog was even more stubborn in the most serious or solemn cases, which include murder, aggravated assault, rape and other sex offenses and are tried before a jury.
Women and children are disproportionately affected by these sex crimes.
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The backlog of formal trials only peaked in January this year, when it reached 3,883, of which 681 had to go before the Supreme Court and 2,402 before a sheriff and jury.
Clearing this backlog poses a particular challenge given the higher number of cases going to court today than before the pandemic, due in part to historical cases of sexual abuse.
Average waiting times for initiating the most serious cases have more than doubled since the pandemic: from 11 weeks between a defendant’s plea and a sheriff and jury trial to 43 weeks, and from 22 weeks to 53 for a High Court trial.
The court service expects the backlog to be cleared by March 2024 for summary judgments, but not until March 2025 for High Court trials and March 2026 for sheriff and jury trials.
Even then, the baseline or “normal operating capacity” will be higher than before.
Before the pandemic, the normal operating capacity for scheduled Supreme Court proceedings was 430, but has now been increased to 597; At solemn sheriff’s trials it was 520, now it’s 1,892.
The report states: “The human impact of the backlog in the criminal courts cannot be underestimated.
“It has detrimental effects on victims and witnesses, including on their mental health.
“As victims wait longer for their cases to be heard, their lives are put on hold and, in some cases, their trauma is prolonged.”
Key risks to further recovery and successful reform include staff pressures in the legal profession and disagreements over the use of virtual trials.
Mr Boyle said: “The criminal case backlog that has built up during the pandemic has been significantly reduced thanks to effective partnership, good use of data and innovation.”
“But while the overall number has declined, waiting times for the most serious crimes, such as rape, have increased. And those delays come at a human cost to victims, witnesses, and defendants.
“It is therefore important that the Scottish Government put in place an implementation plan as soon as possible to further close the backlog and reform the criminal justice system.”
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Tory MP Jamie Greene said: “Despite a massive shift in target posts on what constitutes a court backlog, we still expect three years to resolve it in solemn sheriff court cases and two years in high court cases.”
“It is remarkable that even after a nearly four-fold increase in the target for the sheriff’s backlog, it will still take three years to reach it.
“Victims of rape, murder and aggravated assault are being let down again by SNP ministers.
“Victims must be at the heart of our justice system and not an afterthought.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat Liam McArthur added: “The Scottish courts and Tribunal Service deserve credit for the work they have done to reduce the backlog in the courts, but it is clear that in the most serious and complex cases there is still work to be done there is a lot to do.”
“The consequences of delays are that everyone suffers: victims, witnesses and defendants.”
Kate Wallace, chief executive of Victim Support Scotland, said the fall in backlogs was “encouraging”.
However, she said of the delays, “Families tell us that this time frame is unacceptable and traumatic, and they often feel unable to grieve the loss of a family member during this long and drawn out process.”
“The magnitude of the backlog continues to have a tremendously negative impact on the health and well-being of all those affected by crime, particularly in the most serious cases.”
“As court cases are repeatedly postponed, many victims feel unable to move on with their lives.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We welcome the report from Audit Scotland which recognizes the hard work of justice partners during the Covid pandemic and the significant progress made in reducing the subsequent backlog of criminal cases.”
“We understand how stressful delays in processing cases can be for everyone involved and have worked with partners to mitigate the impact of the backlog.
“This includes expanding the use of pre-recorded evidence and introducing legal aid reforms to reduce the number of cases that go to court.
“The Scottish Government will publish an implementation plan in the summer setting out further measures for further recovery and reform of the criminal justice system.”