Controversial plans to temporarily abolish juries delayed following severe backlash

Controversial plans to temporarily abolish juries delayed following severe backlash

Michael Russell

The Scottish government is delaying controversial plans to abolish juries in solemn trials for the duration of the coronavirus emergency after a furious backlash from the legal profession and outraged politicians.

The bill, which was introduced only yesterday by Constitution Secretary Michael Russell, has been met with widespread incredulity for its provisions on juries, hearsay and freedom of information.

The jury provisions will be revised and introduced in a new bill later this month.

The Lord Justice General, Lord Carloway, defended the proposals in a statement published by the Judicial Office for Scotland, but which was not sent to journalists.

He said the proposals would mitigate a “monumental backlog of solemn criminal trials”.

Lawyers excoriated the proposals on social media.

Ronnie Renucci QC, president of the Scottish Criminal Bar Association, said: “The proposals in this bill include attacks on principles that have been built over 600 years and are at the very cornerstone of Scotland’s criminal justice system and democratic tradition.”

Brian McConnachie QC said on Twitter that, under the proposals, a “wholly unrepresentative section of the population” – judges, few of whom have defence experience – would have the power to condemn people to life imprisonment.

He tweeted: “If this legislation is passed neither the government nor anyone complicit in its passing should be forgiven by the people of this country.

“One virus it seems will regrettably kill thousands and obliterate, who knows for how long, solemn procedure in this country. Lord Devlin said: ‘The object of any tyrant would be to overthrow or diminish trial by jury, for it is the lamp that shows that freedom lives’.

“By comparison, we have juries of every age, colour and creed and most importantly life experience. Every day we tell juries and judges tell juries they are here to decide the facts because the decision is too important to be left to lawyers.

“That is a far less stringent test. What is proposed is that this wholly unrepresentative section of the population should decide the facts which may condemn an accused to life imprisonment.

“Many of them were educated at private schools. Many of them have been advocate deputes prosecuting cases. A handful have practised regularly at the criminal defence bar. Judges rarely have to decide any matter beyond a reasonable doubt. Mostly it is the balance of probabilities.

“At present there are by my reckoning 35 Senators in Scotland. Of these only 10 (soon to be 9) are female. At least 21 of them are over 60. The rest so far as I can ascertain are over 50. There are no ethnic minority judges. Obviously they are all university graduates.”

Joanna Cherry QC tweeted: “The right to a jury trial & the rule against hearsay with only the strictest exceptions are cornerstones of our criminal law. They should be guarded jealously and I am sure MSP colleagues will want to consider these proposals very, very carefully.”

President of the Law Society John Mulholland said: “We fully appreciate the desire to avoid any backlog in cases which might interfere with the proper administration of justice. However, we have not reached that point and so there is not sufficient justification to warrant trials without jury for serious criminal offences. We believe the case for taking such an extraordinary measure has not been made.”

Even the right-wing Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove, expressed surprise at the proposals.

He tweeted: “Deeply concerning. I applaud the Scottish Government for their generous co-operation in the fight against COVID 19 but is it wise to take this position on jury trials? I stand ready to help and discuss - I make no criticism of colleagues facing difficult decisions but let’s talk”.

The government decision to remove the controversial proposals and reconsider them in a separate bill later this month met with cautious welcome.

Robert More and Company tweeted: “Whilst the decision to withdraw the provision to suspend trial by jury from the Coronavirus Bill is of course welcome, there is no time or room for complacency. The unity against this attack on one of our most fundamental freedoms must continue.”

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