The courts complex in Dumbarton which houses the High Court, Sheriff Court and Justice of the Peace Court, and Lady Dorrian. Pictures by Bill Heaney
By Bill Heaney
Stakeholders giving evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee have taken opposing positions on the possibility of jury-less trials.
The Scottish Criminal Bar Association said it remained “vehemently opposed to non-jury trials,” but Victim Support Scotland has called for them to be brought in as a temporary measure as a “last resort”.
The Scottish government originally proposed allowing more trials of serious crimes to be heard entirely by judges as part of emergency coronavirus legislation.
However, ministers agreed to drop the controversial plans after concerns were raised.
Ronnie Renucci from Scottish Criminal Bar Association said trials without juries may seem the cheapest and easiest solution to the case backlog, but this was not a sound basis for any justice system.
He instead welcomed the proposals put forward by Lady Dorian, describing these are “workable, proportionate and are the best way forward”.
However, Kate Wallace from Victim Support Scotland expressed concern about the impact of “lengthy and prolonged delays” on victims in light of the backlog of cases.
The committee has previous been told there could be a backlog of up to 3,000 trials in Scotland by next spring.
Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf – “backlog os cases is eye-watering.”
Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf accepted individuals involved in the justice system will be anxious to have their case dealt with so they can move on with their lives.
The backlog of cases is “eye-watering” and growing with each day that passes, he said.
He explained the plan set out by Lady Dorian is an attempt to establish a sustainable approach going forward. This would allow as many trials as possible to go ahead to maintain justice while also keeping people safe, he said.
For jury trials to resume in July, juries are set to use the public gallery or to watch remotely from a separate courtroom.
The justice secretary added: “Judge-only trials are not an option we’re exploring. They are not an option any work is going into. They’re not an option I can feasibly see being brought back for consideration at all.”
The vast majority of victims and families of victims have said they would be happy for a jury-less or judge-only trial if it meant their cases was heard sooner, Kate Wallace of Victim Support Scotland said.
Mr Renucci of the Scottish Criminal Bar Association argued that a better alternative would be to look at reducing the number of jurors. He said this would ensure the principle of trial by jury is retained.
At the moment, juries in Scotland require 15 people. This can drop to 12 without impacting the trial, but below this number a trial has to be abandoned.
Mr Renucci said realistically a jury could fall to as few as seven people before a trial collapsed.
However, Ms Wallace raises the risk of this resulting in a mis-trial. She suggested the smaller the jury, the greater the risk of that happening.