MSPs: Courts too slow to embrace video conferencing
Moves to make better use of video conferencing within Scotland’s court estate have been too slow, MSPs have claimed.
The Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee today published their report on the draft budget for 2015-16 after hearing evidence from police, prosecutors as well as the Scottish Court Service.
The SCS has allocated an additional £1.9m to ICT development next year to, according to chief executive Eric McQueen, “bring our standards right up to what we class as being state-of-the-art facilities”.
An upgrade to their videoconferencing system was earmarked for completion this month, allowing vulnerable witnesses to appear in court via video link.
Video conferencing facilities have also been piloted within a number of prisons across Scotland to let solicitors consult with their clients.
“The Committee welcomes the new initiatives and targeting of funding towards ICT as a way of generating long-term efficiencies,” says their report.
“However, during the 2013-14 budget process, the Committee is disappointed at the lack of progress in the use of videoconferencing in prison visits and court proceedings, given the potential cost savings.
“Therefore, while the Committee welcomes that a major upgrade of videoconferencing facilities will be complete in 2015, it is frustrated that it has taken such a long time to make this progress.”
Members said it “appears that there is some evidence suggesting current capacity problems” within the estate, despite assurances from the Scottish Court Service that a programme of court closures has not had an impact on access to justice.
“As more courts are due to close in January 2015, the Committee asks the SCS to keep under review the impact of the court closures on the capacity of the remaining courts,” their report adds. “The Committee will also monitor the impact of court closures.”
During evidence sessions with the Association of Scottish Police Superintendents (ASPS) and Unison, MSPs heard of workload pressures on police officers and staff as a result of the recent transition from eight forces to Police Scotland.
“The Committee is concerned by the evidence it heard regarding officers not being able to take rest days and annual leave, and that staff are finding pressures close to overwhelming,” their report says. “The Committee urges the representative bodies and Police Scotland to work together to address such matters.”
The Scottish Police Authority have been urged to “closely monitor” levels of backfilling of police staff posts with police officers amid a “stark difference of opinion” between Unison and Police Scotland on the situation as it stands.
MSPs have also asked the Authority, which plans to undertake an employee survey at the end of this financial year and every two years thereafter, to consider revising this to every 12 months.
Meanwhile, the Scottish Government and UK Government face calls to resolve a wrangle over VAT owed by Police Scotland amid concerns that, going forward, the arrangement “could lead to a diminution in the service provided to the public”.