Juryless trials: Sheriffs warn of danger to judges

Juryless trials: Sheriffs warn of danger to judges

Sheriffs have warned of a danger to judges who preside over juryless trials as their verdicts would come under public scrutiny.

In a submission to MSPs commenting on a proposed pilot that would see judges sit alone in sexual offence cases, the Sheriffs and Summary Sheriffs’ Association pointed out that the welfare of judges was a serious concern since the reason for the proposals is to increase the conviction rate in rape cases.

Sheriff Wendy Sheehan said: “The committee will be aware of significant controversy about various aspects of this part of the bill. We do not seek to engage with all of the points which have been raised about the pilot, but we would make the following points.

“First, we consider that the criteria by which such a pilot is to proceed and by which success, or not, is to be measured, should be clearly articulated in advance and publicly.

“If not on the face of the bill, a ministerial statement ought to be made. The implicit premise of judge-only rape trials is that juries are failing to convict in cases where they ‘ought’ to do so, and that judges will get such cases ‘right’. In other words, the yardstick for success is an increased conviction rate.”

Sheriff Sheehan added: “We have significant concerns about judicial welfare in the context of such a pilot. There is, rightly, public interest in the modalities of prosecution of sexual offences.

“However, as has been evident since the publication of the bill, the form and content of the debate is noisy and frequently personalised.

“There is a very real risk that judges will in effect be on trial: if the political yardstick for success is an increased conviction rate, it is inevitable that individual judicial decisions will be the subject of significantly greater public comment.

“With the exception of the so-called ‘Diplock’ courts in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, we are unaware of any jurisdiction in which decisions on conviction are taken by a single judge in trials for serious crime.

“Judges who are perceived to have an unduly high acquittal rate (whatever that means) will be criticised. Given experience following existing sentencing decisions, judges are likely to be the subject of personal abuse on social media and elsewhere.

“Judges are not in a position to answer back, and it is imperative that practical support is available from the Judicial Office.”

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