Editorial: No need for Carloway Courts or legislative legerdemain

Graham Ogilvy

Yesterday’s bombshell proposal, announced on Twitter à la Trump, by the Lord Justice General to ‘temporarily’ suspend trial by jury in solemn cases has rightly provoked outrage.

It is one of a raft of proposals that the Scottish government is seeking to push through using the current public health crisis as a cover in an act of legislative legerdemain. An assault on the right to trial by jury, the admission of hearsay evidence – the dangers of which Eamon Keane explains below – and the extension of freedom of information compliance from 30 to 100 days are among the more objectionable measures proposed.

The breath-taking haste with which these measures are to introduced is enough to hearten Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban and the measures are so extreme as to alarm that well-known champion of civil liberties Mr Michael Gove. Are we to expect a Committee of Public Safety any time soon?

‘Diplock Courts’ instantly spring to mind as an example of the suspension of trial by jury in a United Kingdom context. But they were introduced in Northern Ireland in 1973 as a ‘temporary’ measure when terror gangs routinely intimidated juries and witnesses at the height of Northern Ireland’s Troubles. Diplock could persuasively argue that non-jury trials were required in a low-level civil war in which the forces of law and order were under attack by bomb and bullet.

Lord Diplock did not make his extraordinary recommendations because an anaemic and underfunded justice system was creaking under a backlog of cases. Indeed, he would have been appalled at the scrapping of trial by jury as an administrative measure designed to deal with chronic underfunding.

Diplock Courts were abolished in 2007 but, like so many ‘temporary’ measures they are still around. Provision for non-jury trials still exists in Northern Ireland at the direction of the Director of Public Prosecutions and they are still referred to as Diplock Courts.

The attempt to rush through Carloway Courts, for that is what these unjust tribunals dispensing flawed justice shall be dubbed, has rightly sent alarm bells ringing among those who cherish our liberties. Liberties that were hard won and can be so easily lost.

It has been pointed out that Scotland’s 600-year right to trial by jury was retained even during World War Two and we would add that the very right to trial by jury was one of the key liberties that conflict was waged to protect.

These proposals might be ‘sinister’ as the Criminal Bar Association considers they may be, or simply an overhasty knee-jerk reaction to the current health crisis.

But whatever the motive behind these odious moves, we would urge all of our readers to contact their local MSP and make their opposition to these proposals known before their return to Parliament later this month.

Graham Ogilvy

Managing editor