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Six SNP backbenchers rebel over juryless trials plan

The juryless trials plan is part of the Victims, Witnesses, and Justice Reform Bill | Alamy

Six SNP backbenchers rebel over juryless trials plan

A group of six SNP MSPs have rebelled against the Scottish Government's plan to pilot judge-only trials in rape cases, abstaining from the stage-one vote on the Victims, Witnesses, and Justice Reform Bill.

The wide-ranging legislation, which aims to "improve the experience of victims and witnesses in the justice system", moots a number of changes, including scrapping the not-proven verdict and creating the role of victims' commissioner.

However, it is the proposal to pilot juryless trials for sexual offences cases that has drawn the most attention, with many lawyers claiming it would be an affront to justice and threatening to boycott the scheme.

The bill will proceed to the next stage after winning the narrow backing of parliament on Tuesday, but more members abstained (62) than supported it (60).

Only the SNP and Greens backed the bill, with SNP members Kate Forbes, Annabelle Ewing, Fergus Ewing, Christine Grahame, Ivan McKee and Michelle Thomson among those who abstained.  

It comes after parliament's Criminal Justice Committee, which had principal responsibility for scrutinising the bill, said in its stage-one report that while members backed the legislation in principle they were divided on party lines over the juryless trials plan.

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, 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 at the time that while the committee backed the legislation, the consensus was 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."

Speaking after the stage-one debate on Tuesday, Findlay said that while the Tories support aspects such as abolishing not proven he believes the scope of the legisaltion is too wide.

"The bill is far too big, complex and seeks to impose profound changes on the justice system with scant evidence and a real risk of unforeseen consequences," he said.

"Our abstention sends a strong message to SNP ministers that they must start listening to our concerns and those of their own colleagues."

Labour's McNeill agreed, saying: "Scottish Labour supports the government’s aims that it is time for change, but we believe that they need a comprehensive plan to look separately at each reform contained within the bill. We believe there is too much substantial reform in one bill.”

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