Covid: Scotland's justice 'system' is in trouble but here's a map to find the way out of it – Karyn McCluskey

It’s no surprise to people that the justice system is in trouble. The pandemic shut the courts for the most part and trials stopped. Yet crime – albeit at a lower level – kept occurring, requiring the justice system to work. But it couldn’t.

Monday, 5th October 2020, 12:30 pm
Falkirk Sheriff Court, like many others across Scotland, will need to deal with a backlog of cases built up during the Covid lockdown (Picture: Michael Gillen)
Falkirk Sheriff Court, like many others across Scotland, will need to deal with a backlog of cases built up during the Covid lockdown (Picture: Michael Gillen)

Now there’s a substantial backlog and reports that processing it could take years. There is huge effort taking place to design ways to address the bottleneck and meet the needs of victims, witnesses and the accused; prioritising cases for those held on remand in prisons awaiting trial dates many months hence.

What’s interesting is that much of the ideas around restarting, renewing and transforming the justice system are not new – in truth the justice system has needed overhauled for a long time. The problems we have now, seven months into this pandemic, are an exacerbation of the problems that existed last year and before that.

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It’s said that “all systems need myths for their longevity” and the biggest myth is, whilst talking about a criminal justice ‘system’, we delude ourselves. In many circumstances, it can amount to a series of clumsy handoffs between agencies with archaic technology, a lack of investment and, often, duplication of effort.

At the sharp end are the people; those who work in the system and, more importantly, those who are affected by it. Neither are served well.

My agency recently completed a digital map of the justice system – a mammoth bit of work, not just the digital task but also the process of mapping the system.

Theresa May, when she was Home Secretary, said a simple burglary could require 1,000 process steps and up to 70 forms as a case progressed through the system. I haven’t counted the steps in Scotland but I’m sure that isn’t far off.

What I often hear is that technology is the great solution. Well, it would definitely help. However Silicon Valley can’t solve many of our challenges. The people in the system are what makes it human; the defence agents who see the frailties of their clients, their mental health problems, homelessness and substances and represent them in the best way possible. The sheriffs who see the victims, witnesses and the accused with all the trauma they have experienced and who pick up the non-verbal cues – the humanity that’s often missing via a screen.

And, ironically, that’s what our digital justice map speaks most loudly of – people. People are present in every pixel of that map. Those stumbling around, lost and trapped, repeatedly walking into dead-ends or flailing in quicksand; those who gatekeep their own little cul-de-sac; those desperately trying to build bridges; those focused on improving their own backyard, blinkered to the dilapidated house next door.

Justice isn’t a system – or if it is, it’s more like the circulatory system than a circuit board. It’s a living organism and every part involves people, whether in the doing or the done to. We’re not destined to continue to walk the same paths, just because that’s what we did yesterday or last year or 100 years ago. It is quintessentially human to seek new lands and sail uncharted waters – this map is only what we know now; let’s use it as a compass to where we go next.

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