Jury trials must continue but protect participants, legal profession working group says
Jury trials must continue to be held but must do so in a way that protects both participants and the integrity of the Scottish justice system, a legal profession working group has told the Scottish Government.
Measures such as streamlining the jury selection process and spreading out jury members in the courtroom should be used to continue with jury trials during the coronavirus outbreak, the working group led by the Law Society of Scotland has said.
The comments were made in a submission in response to the Scottish Government’s discussion paper on criminal trials, which was published last week.
The group, which included representatives of the Faculty of Advocates and the Society of Solicitor Advocates, re-stated their position that judge-only trials should not be introduced for cases where there would normally be a jury.
Instead they recommended modifications to current procedures to secure the safety of the public and court officials.
They suggest streamlining the jury selection process to automatically exempt essential health workers, those with caring responsibilities or who are shielding, and anyone who is ill or self-isolating as a result of COVID-19 symptoms, as well as simplifying the ballot system to avoid unnecessary attendance at court for jurors.
They also recommend considering dedicated transport between home and court for jurors, which might include overnight accommodation to reduce travel time and potential exposure to the virus.
For the case trial itself, they call for larger courts to be used where they are available and for jury members to be spread throughout the court room rather than using the jury box so that physical distances can be maintained.
They also suggest considering reducing the jury size for some trials.
John Mulholland, president of the Law Society, said: “Protecting the health of everyone involved in criminal justice at this time is a fundamental principle that we all must all observe.
“Our response to the Government makes it clear that this can be met for jury trials within current court facilities and by using and extending existing technology without sacrificing core principles of our justice system.
“I would like to thank all of the members of the working group set up to look at this, in particular representatives of the Faculty of Advocates and the Society of Solicitor Advocates.
“Our members have been clear that this is a really important issue for them, and a united voice from the legal profession is invaluable in making this point.”
The response also highlighted the need for a solution that covers all stages of the criminal trial process, starting from attendance at the police station.
Deborah Wilson, convener of the Law’s Society’s Criminal Law Committee, who chaired the working group, said: “As with many aspects of life during this public health crisis, we have had to consider new ways of working within short timescales which change long-evolved processes which have been put in place for a good reason.
“It is important not to lose sight of the fact that, according to the law, a trial starts in the police station.
“It is vital that every stage in the criminal justice process, including the police station and pre-court hearings, are also safe for all during the current pandemic.”