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by Margaret Taylor
29 March 2024
Justice committee divides on party lines over juryless trials plan

Criminal Justice Committee convener Audrey Nicoll | Alamy

Justice committee divides on party lines over juryless trials plan

Parliament’s Criminal Justice Committee has given its tentative backing to a proposed overhaul of the justice system, although members are divided along party lines on controversial plans to pilot judge-only trails in sexual offences cases.

Having carried out stage-one scrutiny of the Victims, Witnesses, and Justice Reform (Scotland) Bill earlier this year, the committee has given its caveated support to abolishing the not-proven verdict but, while SNP members were supportive of the juryless trial plan, members from other parties were not.

The pilot was first mooted by Lord Justice Clerk Lady Dorrian as a potential way of addressing persistently low conviction rates in rape cases but has been heavily criticised by many working in the legal sector, who claim it will put pressure on judges to convict and potentially lead to false outcomes.

Along with fellow SNP members Rona Mackay, Fulton MacGregor and John Swinney, committee convener Audrey Nicoll said she would support the pilot so long as it was limited to 18 months and on condition that the way it will be evaluated is explicitly set out in the legislation.

Labour members Katy Clark and Pauline McNeill are not generally supportive of the pilot although said that if it does go ahead it should be overseen by a panel of three judges rather than one.

Tory members Russell Findlay and Sharon Dowey, meanwhile, are opposed to the plan, saying it represents too big a departure from the current presumption that accused people have a right to be tried by a panel of their peers.

Nicoll said that while the committee has given its backing to the legislation at this stage, the consensus is that it has the potential to drastically change the justice system and as such further improvements will need to be made in order for it to be supported further down the line.

“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,” she said.

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

“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.”

In terms of the not-proven verdict, the committee agreed that it should be abolished, but said it had not heard compelling evidence to support the suggestion that jury sizes and majorities should also be altered.

Currently Scottish juries are made up of 15 people and a simple majority is required to convict. The bill proposes reducing the number to 12, with a three-quarters qualified majority required to convict.

Elsewhere, the committee is split over the plan to create a specialist sexual offences court, which would see such cases overseen by a pool of judges who have had specific training on how they should be dealt with.

The SNP members of the committee support the plan while the Labour and Conservative members said the improvements envisaged by that proposal could be achieved through the creation of specialist divisions of the High Court and Sheriff Court.

The committee has not given its backing to the creation of a victims and witnesses commissioner, saying it would create another layer of bureaucracy and strain on public finances at a time when resources are under extreme pressure.

It has also warned that provisions relating to trauma-informed practice could turn into a “tick-box exercise” if provisions around the issue and its definition are not strengthened.

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