Witnessing the Criminal Justice System

Kaitlin Dryburgh-12/10/2022

For the past two years I’ve had the prospect of being a witness in a court case looming over me. I’ve been unlucky enough to gain some first-hand insight into the Scottish judicial system on two occasions once as a juror in a week-long case and secondly as a witness. However I’ve been lucky enough to never experience it through the lens of a victim, or as the accused but that’s not really down to luck and more conscious decisions.

The main take away from both my experiences being that it is one of the most frustrating and time-wasting exercises on this planet. Now of course sitting on a jury and being a witness upholds a citizen’s right to a fair trial and without a doubt are necessary tasks, yet I have lost a lot of time and money being there (yes you can get reimbursed but there’s a limit and you’ve got to jump through a lot of hoops to get it back). I’m now on my seventh citation for the case I am a witness on and having spent a total of two and a half working days sitting in a waiting room to be told the case is postponed again, I have lost almost all confidence in the court’s ability to deliver timely justice and be of value for money. It’s now been over two years since the first citation and it’s not over.  

To anyone who luckily hasn’t been a witness I’ll take you through the day in the life of a witness at the Edinburgh courts, although I assume the process will be very similar everywhere else. So once arriving and ushered through a low-key airport security, you proceed to the witness room. This means walking through a very long hallway with the court rooms lining the way, which if you are a victim or perhaps a vulnerable witness isn’t a great set-up as you are paraded in front of many of the accused and their families. In fact you enter the same door as the accused, as a witness I spoke to had to do which was extremely uncomfortable for him.

Then you arrive in the witness room, you sign-in and set up camp, your facilities consist of a toilet, a near empty vending machine and broken water fountain, but it’s okay as you can go up three floors to the canteen just in case you hadn’t seen the person you were hoping to avoid. The witness room by 10am is filled with all ages of people, backgrounds, and different needs and at that point witness support comes round to speak to every single person to explain what the process is and what the inside of the court room looks like, very useful unless you’ve been there several times before.

It is at this point they let you into an embarrassing statistic, that you in fact probably won’t be needed today as 70% of witnesses will go home without having been in court. It isn’t long after 10.30 am that people start getting called by the receptionist to be told it’s been adjourned/postponed and consequently asked what they’re doing next April or if they would free March 15th, as if you would know. It takes about an hour to almost half the amount of people in the waiting room and the majority of them are on their way home, including the people I spoke to who are also on their third visit. You are never told why it didn’t go ahead and any updates that come through don’t provide you with any justification as to why it’s delayed. However they are the lucky ones as you might be kept until 4pm then told to go home.

This situation is common and is a completely idiotic and inefficient system. It disrupts people’s lives, forcing them to take time off of work, having to sort out childcare, not to mention the knock-on effect this can have on other people, such as a school teacher or even a surgeon being off work. The emotional distress and frustration seen by many, no wonder some people are reluctant to speak to the police or agree to give evidence, I’m even second-guessing the choices I’ve made, even though I without a doubt made the right choice. The sense of frustration is comparable to turning up for a flight which is delayed, you’re never told why and at the end of the day its cancelled without any explanation or apology and you repeat that three times a year.  

What makes it even worse is you’ve now been given a glimpse into the most unproductive buildings scattered around Scotland, so each day you remember that there are hundreds of witnesses, staff, and jurors that are sitting in courts up and down the country so that taxpayers can pay for the pleasure of them sitting around for a while and then go home. Paying for travel, lunches, childcare and wages for nothing and no one really knows why.

We have a major backlog in our courts due to Covid, and some have stated that it may take until 2026 to clear this, of course this isn’t just happening in Scotland but almost all over the world. Although I can’t speak about the judicial system on other continents I can safely say that the systems in Scotland, England and Wales are not working. They are inefficient and sluggish, and this was even the case before Covid began as defence lawyer Darryl Lovie states. A sometimes average day for him in the Livingston courts can consist of him having to dismiss all his witness and clients as the court decides that his case wasn’t a priority. Furthermore on more than one occasion it has turned out that those cases didn’t even go ahead, as he says every day there are court rooms sitting empty while the backlog of cases pile up even more.

Three cases that took priority over his on one of this occasions didn’t go ahead due to several key individuals having Covid and being unable to attend. However, there is a quick fix that would most likely have sorted this problem and it’s the establishment and continuous use of technology in courtrooms. Why isn’t video evidence used more readily, why should witnesses/victims have to sit for hours to be told to go home when in fact they could have been at home, or in certain situations even at work while they waited for a video call. Recorded evidence could also be played, is it in the best interests of anyone to have to recount what happened to them or what they saw three years when the police could have recorded it and captured all the emotions, reactions and details that were fresh from memory, without someone altering what you said which can often happen in a police statement, often not on purpose though. This could save money and time, as well as save people the inconvenience and distress of having a court case trip looming over them for years.

Without a doubt this will require some heavy investment, and shouldn’t be done half heartly like we’ve seen with some NHS IT systems, if done correctly this could serve the Scottish court systems for a long time to come.

It cannot be understated the need to get the court system moving along, this summer just past saw a rape victim in England take her own life as she had to wait over five years for her case to come to trial. This was quite a horrible case however, she was not alone as other victims have reported experiencing suicidal thoughts while their cases take years to go to trial.

Thankfully I and hopefully you have never experienced something like this and never will, but it does get you thinking, who are the courts working for? It doesn’t seem that that victims are finding the timely justice they want, defence lawyers are having to strike in order to receive fair pay for the mountainous amount of work they do, and it seems that average people who have been sucked into the justice system via being a witness and juror are wasting a lot of time to be there. We must at all costs uphold the right to a fair trial, but it needs to be fair to all and should be efficient both in time and money when doing it.

3 thoughts on “Witnessing the Criminal Justice System”

  1. Ian Davidson

    The criminal justice system in Scotland has been dysfunctional for many years and seems to be getting worse. As you point out, much time and money wasted. Sadly, this state of affairs reinforces the view held by many folks that unless absolutely unavoidable, it is better not to be a juror or witness; if you are a victim then you may choose not to report the crime (which we know is a factor in sexual assaults under reporting). It could be improved but like nhs/social care this would require: candour from politicians and senior law administrators; willingness to try new approaches; long term investment in better staffing and infrastructure. None of this likely in current circumstances?

  2. Clare Donaldson

    I have a similar opinion of the Fatal Accident Inquiry process and will never understand how key witnesses can CHOOSE not to appear in case they incriminate themselves – how can lessons be learned without access to key facts?

  3. Andrew Currie

    Down the rabbit hole we go.
    “…unproductive buildings…” Not so much.
    Court houses and police stations are listed as corporate businesses.
    EG in the States, there is a value placed on every crime against a citizen.
    However the fines paid hardly keep the lights on.in the court house. The real money is in the value of the “Charges” . Since there is a. Value to your hide on the Private side of accounts,
    think in the vein of outstanding credit card charges. Bad example but it will have to do..
    Typically in some jurisdiction those hidden unpaid charges (that’s why you get a record because the charges are not set off)) come out of the Judge’s safe at 90 days plus 1 and the value moves from the Private side of accounts to be monetized in the Public side of accounts by the county comptroller.
    Can’t speak for Scotland but in some places, the judge and prosecutor get a “cut of the kill”,
    which would explain higher value cases/charges taking precedence over those of lesser value.
    Their cut of the kill is supposed to build up on the Private side for their pension .
    The larger the contribution, the bigger the pension.

    In the States the court and prison industry is down to a fine art. There are Bid, Payment and Performance bonds spun from the Charges : the incarcerated being the surety for the bonds.
    The bonds can be traded interntionally via Wall St to London, Frankfurt etc.
    The chump change is in the gulag/ prison factories. The real money is in the bonds.
    Hence the high rate of incarceration in the States, I suppose.
    But I digress.

    Maybe this explains the postponements in the Scottish system
    Since they are a business they would want to maximize their monthly cash flow with the
    potentially higher value/kill court cases, rather than low yielding cases.
    You can look the court houses up in your business registries.
    Court comptrollers are a wealth of info, as are court staff who usually hate the judges and prosecutors.

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