ALMOST all criminal trials in Scotland are to be put on hold in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the Lord Advocate has told Holyrood.

James Wolffe said the move would have a “profound effect” on the justice system but was a necessary step to control the outbreak.

He added that Police Scotland will continue to respond to crime and to report cases to the procurator fiscal.

Wolffe told MSPs that accused people will continue to be taken into custody when needed to ensure public safety and that prosecutions will be initiated where there is evidence.

Where cases go to court, the accused will appear by video link when possible and witnesses will be kept to a minimum. However, Wolffe said the great majority of cases will be deferred to a later date.

He said: “Last Tuesday, the Lord President announced that no new jury trials would commence until further notice. He was right to take that step, which was entirely consistent with the public health advice. Since Thursday, the Crown, in co-operation with the court, has been taking steps to adjourn most summary trials – trials that are dealt with by a sheriff or justice of the peace without a jury – until June.

“The only business going through the criminal court at this time will be essential custody business.”

READ MORE Police given powers to enforce coronavirus lockdown in Scotland 

Wolffe added: “Those steps will have a profound impact. They involve putting on hold almost all criminal trials, but they were, and are, necessary steps, which will help all of us – staff working in the justice system and citizens alike – to comply with the public health imperatives.

“As we take those steps to address the urgent public health advice, I am committed to maintaining the rule of law and the fair administration of justice, to respecting the rights of the defence, and to fulfilling our obligations under the European convention on human rights.”

The National:

Wolffe (above) said the investigation of deaths is also being reviewed “with a view to relieving pressures on the medical profession”.

He later went on to warn that the justice system may face additional pressures as a result of people being brought into custody on public safety grounds.

“One of the tensions and challenges that we will face will be the need for individuals to be detained on remand where public safety requires it,” he said.

“The guidelines that I have issued to the police focus decisions about custody firmly on the question of public safety, so that individuals will be taken into custody where public safety demands it, but not unnecessarily.

“Beyond that, a range of measures are being considered with the Government, but at this stage it is perhaps not for me to outline what they are.”

The Lord Advocate updated Holyrood after Lord Burnett of Maldon, the Lord Chief Justice, who heads the judiciary in England and Wales, announced that “no new trials are to start” in either the crown or magistrates’ courts.

Efforts to finish existing jury trials will continue and some Crown Court hearings will continue to take place remotely.

The trial of three teenagers accused of the murder of PC Andrew Harper was adjourned on Monday after the jury was discharged as three of its members had gone into isolation because of the virus.

Sitting at the Old Bailey in London, Mr Justice Edis said he took the step with “a heavy heart”. Two jurors were discharged last week and a third, whose elderly father had been taken ill, had gone into self-isolation over the weekend.

PC Harper, who would have been 29 on Sunday, was killed in Berkshire last August after responding to a report of burglary. He died after allegedly being dragged behind a vehicle. The defendants had each pleaded not guilty to murder.