SNP MSPs unanimously endorse juryless trials pilot

SNP MSPs unanimously endorse juryless trials pilot

A Holyrood committee is divided in its support for a pilot of juryless trials in rape cases.

The pilot, which cannot take place without the participation of solicitors, would remove juries from rape cases due to a perception that conviction rates in such cases are artificially low compared to other serious crimes. This is despite the fact that other serious crimes are different in kind from sexual ones.

The Criminal Justice Committee did, however, lend its support to the abolition of the ‘not proven’ verdict.

The committee said it is not sustainable to have a verdict in a criminal trial which has no accepted legal definition and that it being a historical feature of the Scottish criminal justice system is not sufficient reason to retain it.

The committee added that should the Scottish government proceed with the abolition of the third verdict, it could not support the proposed reduction in jury size and increase in majority required to secure a conviction because it had “not heard” compelling evidence to support this.

On the proposed pilot scheme for criminal trials of rape or attempted rape by a single judge without a jury – popularly known as juryless trials – there was a range of views within the committee.

SNP committee members Audrey Nicoll, Rona Mackay, Fulton MacGregor and John Swinney backed the pilot, subject to a number of safeguards. These include limiting the pilot to a period of no longer than 18 months.

Scottish Conservatives Russell Findlay and Sharon Dowey were not persuaded that the pilot should go ahead. In their view, this proposal represents a fundamental departure in Scots law from the “long-established right” of a person accused of serious crime to trial by a jury of their peers. They are also concerned about the homogeneous nature of the judiciary and are mindful of conflicting evidence on the issue of ‘rape myths’.

Scottish Labour MSPs Katy Clark and Pauline McNeill did not think the pilot should go ahead saying clearer criteria, timescales and procedures have to be on the face of the bill in order for it to proceed. They say that if the provisions relating to the pilot proceed, a panel of three judges should be considered and a sunset clause will be essential.

On the proposal to establish a new Sexual Offences Court, all members of the committee highlighted concerns including the prospect of the new court considering murder cases and the resources required in order for it to meet its full potential. However, the committee was split on the question of whether a new court should be established.

Committee convener Audrey Nicoll MSP said: “We have carried out extensive scrutiny of this bill and have listened to a wide range of voices and arguments both for and against the proposals.

“While our committee is content to agree the general principles of the bill at Stage 1, further improvements can be made. Although committee members did not support every proposal in this bill we all recognise it has the potential to improve the justice system for victims and witnesses and this is something we wholly support.

“For some members, the final composition of the bill at Stage 3 will ultimately determine whether they are able to support it.”

Ms Nicoll continued: “We believe the not proven verdict has had its day and should be abolished. The lack of understanding or clarity on what this verdict means and the devastating impact it can have on victims mean the time has come for it to be abolished.

“We recognise the strength of feeling on the proposed pilot of juryless trials and have been unable to reach a unified view on whether this pilot should proceed. However, we agree that if a pilot is to go ahead then much improved data on conviction rates is needed and a clear baseline of information so we can understand the impact of the pilot.

“We have been determined to place the voices of survivors and individuals affected by crime at the centre of our scrutiny and are very grateful to all who have engaged with us throughout our scrutiny of this bill.”

Law Society of Scotland president Sheila Webster said: “We thank the members of the committee for their diligence in publishing this detailed report, which further underlines our concerns about key elements of this bill.

“The proposal to introduce juryless trials for rape cases has been the most controversial part of this bill, and it has proven to be equally divisive for committee members. The lack of consensus confirms this plan is flawed, and is lacking detail and supporting evidence. It should be removed from the bill.

“We do hold some significant concerns about the report’s section dealing with the ‘not proven’ verdict. It appears that committee members support scrapping the third verdict despite acknowledging they don’t know what the impact of that decision will be.

“Scrapping ‘not proven’ without any balancing provisions would be an entirely unacceptable outcome with unforeseeable outcomes. If there is insufficient evidence to decide on jury size and verdict majority, then ‘not proven’ must be retained.

“We remain supportive of significant parts of the bill including around the anonymity of complainers in sexual offence cases, the establishment of a new commissioner, and a focus on trauma informed practice.”

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