Justice Secretary Michael Matheson claims research needed before 'not proven' verdict is dropped
Michael McMahon, who introduced the bill, said "time is right" to move to two-verdict system
Justice Secretary Michael Matheson has dismissed calls to overhaul Scotland’s three-verdict system until research into how juries reach decisions is undertaken.
Matheson told MSPs he is “not unsympathetic” to the reform but claimed a clearer evidence base is required before any changes are implemented.
It came as Holyrood’s justice committee heard evidence on the Criminal Verdicts (Scotland) Bill, which seeks to remove the ‘not proven’ verdict in favour of two possible verdicts of ‘guilty’ and ‘not guilty’.
Scottish Women’s Aid has said the ‘not proven’ verdict “serves no useful purpose” while Rape Crisis Scotland has told MSPs that moving to a two-verdict system would lead to a “clearer and less confusing jury decision making process”.
The member’s bill brought forward by Labour MSP Michael McMahon also calls for a change in the number of jurors required to hand down a guilty verdict, extending this from a simple majority to at least two-thirds.
Former High Court judge Lord Bonomy last year called for research into jury reasoning and decision-making as part of his review on safeguards in the event of the corroboration requirement being abolished. This work would then be used to inform any changes to jury size, majority and verdicts, argued Lord Bonomy’s report.
Matheson claimed a change to the three-verdict system is “interlinked” to other areas, such as the size of juries and the majority required for each verdict, and warned not treating them as such risks “imbalancing” the system.
“I’m not unsympathetic to reform in this area - that’s why we’re undertaking the research,” he said. “But I’m very mindful of the fundamental nature that these areas play within our criminal justice system and prior to undertaking any changes in this area I think it is prudent and responsible to make sure we’re clear about the evidence base that would provide for any changes in this area.
“That’s why I think the research is the area that we should undertake before we reform this area of the criminal justice system.”
Research into how juries reach decisions, which the Scottish Government has yet to commission, “will not be a quick process”, the Justice Secretary acknowledged.
Lord Bonomy had indicated it could take two years, though Matheson intimated the timeframe could be longer, dependent upon the final remit and whether mock jurors or real jurors are used.
Academic research into the process of decision-making of juries in criminal trials within the UK has been largely limited amid concerns about protecting the secrecy of deliberations.
McMahon introduced the bill more than two years ago only for it to be delayed while parliament considered whether to scrap the requirement for corroboration.
He said: “The time is right to discuss this, to look at it and to make the changes that I think not only should parliamentarians want to bring about but I believe the people of Scotland want to see changed.
“That’s the evidence that I’ve accrued from the various consultations I have conducted and the evidence is there to suggest that the time is now right for us to take away this anomaly within the system and get the system in a place where people can have more confidence in it because they can trust the verdicts much more than is currently the case.”
The Labour MSP went on to tell members of the committee that there is a “stigma attached to the not proven verdict”.
“I think a ‘not proven’ verdict actually suggests that there may have been some evidence that they had done it, but there was not enough evidence to convict,” he said. "I don’t believe that is what a trial is there to achieve. It’s there to look at the evidence and arrive at a conclusion on guilt or not.”
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