Survey finds overwhelming support for preservation of ‘not proven’
Scots lawyers would like the ‘not proven’ verdict preserved whether Scotland adopts a two or three verdict system, a survey by the Law Society of Scotland has found.
The survey – the majority of whose respondents were civil practitioners – asked about the need for change in the context of proposals by the Scottish government to consult on the future of the third verdict.
The message back from the profession was clear: whether Scotland retains a three-verdict criminal justice system or moves to a two-verdict one, the not proven verdict should remain, and any change will require a number of other amendments to safeguard against miscarriages of justice.
More than 1,000 solicitors took part in the online survey, the largest response to the question of what the legal profession thinks about the current three-verdict criminal justice system in Scotland.
Over 70 per cent of those who responded to the survey said they believed that the ‘not proven’ verdict should be retained. That percentage remains consistent across non-criminal and criminal practitioners. Solicitors working in the justice sector as part of the Crown Office, were more in favour of abolishing ‘not proven’, with just under 60 per cent expressing support for its removal.
The most frequently stated reason for supporting retention of not proven was that it provided an important safeguard to prevent wrongful convictions. Eighty-three per cent of all respondents in favour of retaining the verdict gave this as the principal justification for doing so.
For those who wish to see the abolition of ‘not proven’, the main single reason given was that it was thought juries do not understand the verdict. Seventy-six per cent of respondents who want the not proven verdict abolished gave this as the reason.
However, when asked what they would like to see used in a two-verdict system, the preference for ‘not proven’ was retained, with 58 per cent of all respondents saying they would prefer verdicts of proven/not proven as opposed to guilty/not guilty. That was felt to indicate more accurately what the jury was saying.
Debbie Wilson, convener of the Law Society’s Criminal Law Committee, said: “The clear feeling from the survey responses was that the verdict of ‘not proven’ more properly represents what juries and courts are being asked to determine. The job of the prosecutor is to prove the charge beyond reasonable doubt.
“We had no preconceptions about what the results of this survey would show. The responses we received give us a clearer idea of the views of the profession overall than we have ever had before. This will be extremely valuable when it is time for the Criminal Law Committee to consider our response to any consultation from the Scottish Government on the future of the not proven verdict.”
She added: “The debate over not proven has returned again and again over the years. There is no simple solution. Removing not proven in isolation is not a realistic solution to any real or imagined problem with our current system. Fundamentally, it is important that we have a criminal justice system which maintains the rule of law, minimises the risk of miscarriages of justice, and satisfies public confidence.
“Regardless of what happens next in terms of a public consultation on the not proven verdict or wider criminal justice reform, this will require a significant public education project. Education is necessary to ensure that the public understand the verdicts available to them, their important role on a jury in determining whether or not a charge has been proven beyond reasonable doubt and what the verdict means once it is reached.”