STAFFING problems which led to island sheriff court jury trials being moved to the mainland should be resolved in the spring, Justice Secretary Angela Constance has said.

Since last summer, staffing issues at the prisoner escort service have affected trials due to call at Stornoway, Lerwick, Portree and Lochmaddy sheriff courts.

Asked about the issue at Holyrood, Constance said there had recently been progress with a “slowdown in staff attrition and improved staff numbers”. However she described the performance of private contractor GEOAmey as “utterly unacceptable”.

She added: “Assurances have been given by GEOAmey that they will be able to properly resource the courts from spring 2024.”

The National: Angela Constance

Responding to questions from the Greens’ Ariane Burgess, Constance said: “There’s no doubt about it, the performance of GEOAmey has been utterly unacceptable and has had huge impacts across the justice system.”

She said the company’s performance would “definitely” be considered in discussions around the future of prisoner transport.

The report also highlighted how the “ongoing poor performance” by GEOAmey in its contract for escorting and transporting prisoners was “resulting in delays and inefficiencies across the justice sector, impacting on policing, prison services and the courts”.

Between July and September 2023, only 62% of prisoners due in court arrived on time, Audit Scotland noted, with 63% of those returning to prison from court delivered on time.

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This came as staffing levels for the service at GEOAmey fell to around 520 full-time equivalents, with this said to be around 25% less than the estimated 670 to 700 needed to deliver the required level of service.

While the SPS issued improvement notices and imposed financial penalties on GEOAmey, the report said these had had “limited impact”, with prison bosses “taking more direct action” to improve the situation.

In summer 2023, the Law Society previously said that the contractor was providing an inadequate level of service with issues around the country.

The professional body, which represents 12,000 solicitors, said it was causing significant delays in criminal proceedings.

Law Society president Sheila Webster said: “We’ve been receiving disturbing and unacceptable reports of delays and disruption in courts across Scotland for quite some time, and it appears that the problems are getting worse with no end in sight.

“Criminal solicitors have described the level of service being provided by GEOAmey as disgraceful, with hours-long delays commonplace.

“Whatever the cause of these disruptions, a solution must be found urgently so the provision of criminal justice can return to normal."

The society also said they has concerns at the "the total upheaval caused to solemn matters in the Grampian, Highland and Islands Sheriffdom".