Judge-only trials still under active consideration by Scottish government

Judge-only trials still under active consideration by Scottish government

Despite a furious backlash from the legal profession, the Scottish government is still actively considering the suspension of jury trials.

Last month, the government was forced to remove measures to abolish juries in solemn trials from its emergency coronavirus legislation.

Ronnie Renucci QC, president of the Scottish Criminal Bar Association (SCBA) had said the proposals were an attack on principles “built over 600 years” that are at the “cornerstone of Scotland’s criminal justice system and democratic tradition”.

The government has now tabled nine options in a new discussion document to deal with the problem. The only option it explicitly endorses, however, is the same one it was forced to withdraw: the abolition of juries in solemn trials.

Of the remaining eight options it either makes no comment or casts doubt on their practicability or value.

One option mooted is to adjust the sentencing powers of sheriff courts in summary cases by increasing the maximum custodial sentence of 12 months to two or three years.

The document distinguishes this from the proposal for judge-only courts, stating: “Unlike the proposal for judge-only courts, this change would limit the maximum sentence that a convicted person could receive from a judge sitting alone and would extend the long-established precedent for the summary courts to deal with both matters of guilt or otherwise of the accused and if convicted, sentencing of the offender for cases at the less serious end of the spectrum.”

A senior defence advocate told Scottish Legal News: “How is this different from solemn trials without a jury? The issue is not just one of sentence, it is a right to trial by jury in serious offences.

“This is simply saying we will do away with jurors in some sort of unspecified middle ground of cases and sweeten it with a sentence limit that can be adjusted at any time once the introduction of solemn trials without juries is established.”

The document also suggests, among other proposals, reducing the jury size, using larger venues to enable social distancing and using video-links.”

The Edinburgh Bar Association said in a statement: “We are extremely concerned that the Scottish government are again moving to remove the right to trial by jury for the most serious cases by advocating solemn trials with judges only or by significantly increasing sentencing powers in summary cases (which would have the effect of removing trial by jury for many cases).”

Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf said: “Following intensive work by government, the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service and the Crown Office, our discussion paper details a range of potential temporary options and while changing the trial by jury system is still included it is not our favoured option.

“Each has clear challenges and I will consider them in detail, while having talks with key justice partners, including representatives of the legal profession, victims organisations, political parties and human rights experts this week.

“I intend to update Parliament as soon as possible after recess on how these discussions are progressing and any planned next steps.”

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