Inside the Odeon Cinema as it prepares to host virtual high court jury trials

In normal times, the Odeon cinema complex in Fort ­Kinnaird on the outskirts of Edinburgh attracts audiences seeking a few hours of escapism, courtesy of Hollywood and beyond.

Friday, 25th September 2020, 7:00 am
Updated Friday, 25th September 2020, 7:38 am
The first remote jury centre at the Odeon in Fort Kinnaird, Edinburgh
The first remote jury centre at the Odeon in Fort Kinnaird, Edinburgh

But from next week its darkened auditoriums will be showing footage of a very different nature – a live link to the city’s High Court and CCTV of people accused of the worst crimes. In a UK first, five screens of the complex are being converted into giant jury boxes where 15 randomly selected members of the public will decide some of the nation’s most serious cases.

For the next six months, the Odeon will be closed to the public from 8am to 6pm on weekdays, allowing justice to be served during the coronavirus pandemic.

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At weekends, after a deep clean, it will be converted back into a cinema again, welcoming families and others seeking respite from the worldwide gloom that 2020 has brought. The project, which follows a successful pilot, was ordered as part of attempts to find ways to run High Court jury trials safely in the era of social distancing.

Before the virus hit, 390 High Court trials in Scotland were waiting to proceed. By the end of last month this had almost doubled to around 750, with the backlog growing all the time.

The Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service has been given £5.5 million by the Scottish Government to work out ways of getting through the trials and has spent an undisclosed sum on its six-month contract with the Odeon.

Its aim is to get to the point where jury trials are back up at pre-pandemic levels, with 16 being run concurrently. To do so, it will use five screens in Edinburgh and a further 11 screens at another complex in Braehead, Renfrewshire, which will be up and running from 16 October.

Jurors are spaced throughout the auditorium and view the trial live on the big screen, which is split into four portions to show the courtroom, the accused, the judge and witness box. Crucial evidence, such as CCTV footage, can be expanded to fill the entire screen. When the jurors are ready to deliberate, they descend to socially distanced tables at the front.

Another benefit of the system is the feed from the courtroom can be cut at the touch of a button, so there is no need for the jury to troop out every time legal arguments are heard.

Ronnie Renucci QC, vice-dean of faculty and president of the Scottish Criminal Bar Association (SCBA), said: “The use of cinemas as remote jury centres is an innovative and unique solution to the problem of conducting jury trials during the present restrictions.

“More importantly, it is a workable solution that allows jury trials to proceed at a sustainable level, which should prevent the present backlog rising further.

“The SCBA welcomes and applauds the vibrant return to full scale criminal trials that the innovative jury centre solution represents. Remote jury centres break new ground and will be of the keenest interest to other nations wrestling with the havoc wreaked by Covid on adversarial justice systems around the world.”

David Harvie, chief executive of the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, said: “The opening of these jury centres is an important step which will allow for the number of High Court trials held to come back up to pre-pandemic levels.”

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