THE use of screens to separate witnesses from accused persons at serious criminal trials has soared over the last three years, The National can reveal.

Screens were used 1826 times over the last year in solemn procedure trials in High Courts and Sheriff Courts, up from 1497 occasions in 2016-17, a rise of 22 per cent.

The use of supporters – people who accompany witnesses during trials – has also risen in more serious criminal cases, up from 2259 in 2016-17 to 2725 last year, an increase of more than 20%.

The number of occasions when screens were used in less serious trials fell in the same period, explained by the fact that the number of such trials has fallen substantially due to more people pleading guilty at an earlier stage in cases.

The Victims and Witnesses (Scotland) Act passed by the Holyrood Parliament in 2014 brought in new standards of service including usage figures which must be recorded in an annual report.

The fourth such Standards of Service for Victims and Witnesses Annual Report has just been published by the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service (SCTS), Police Scotland, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, the Scottish Prison Service and the Parole Board for Scotland.

The report shows that in 2018/19 the number of High Court indictments (cases) registered increased by 26 per cent to 999.

The report states: “Despite this increase in new business, diligent case management at an early stage has ensured that the demand for trial diets has increased by a far smaller margin, only 10% on the previous year. A significant increase in the number of guilty pleas has also been witnessed, up almost 20% on the same period, with the resultant removal of the need for victims and witnesses to attend court to give evidence.”

The chief executive of SCTS, Eric McQueen, said: “As well as commenting in our report on the specific standards we have set,

we have taken the opportunity

this year to highlight the good work taking place more widely in the system to improve the justice experience.

“With the support of the Scottish Government, this includes the development of specialised evidence suites for capturing evidence at a very early stage and negating the need for vulnerable witnesses to attend at court.

“Diligent case management is also having a significant impact on the levels of cases which proceed to trial in court, which again is a positive result for those who might otherwise be cited to attend.”

Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf said: “We recognise that having to engage with the criminal justice system can be a challenging and traumatic experience for victims and witnesses. We want to ensure that a victim-centred approach, developed and backed by partners, can improve the way we communicate, support and treat victims throughout their contact with the system.

“To this end, last year we launched the Victims Taskforce, bringing together senior decision-makers from justice agencies and the voluntary sector, including those who directly represent victims.”