The Scottish government has announced plans to hold trials for serious sexual offences without a jury. Why have defence lawyers said they’ll boycott the scheme?
Scottish government plans to pilot jury-less trials for serious sexual offences have provoked a furious backlash among senior legal figures. Lawyers have accused the government of putting political pressure on the judiciary in an effort to improve conviction rates for crimes such as rape.
Under the pilot a single judge rather than a jury of 15 ordinary people would decide whether someone is guilty in cases of rape or attempted rape. The recommendation came out of an official review established to improve the management of sexual offence cases.
Conviction rates for this type of crime are particularly low in Scotland. While Police Scotland received reports of 2,176 rapes and attempted rapes between 2020 and 2021, these led to just 152 prosecutions and only 78 convictions.
Lawyers who oppose the plans worry they will threaten the right to a fair trial. At least ten groups from the Scottish Solicitors Bar Association (SSBA) have voted against them.
“This is a bad idea and has potentially quite far-reaching consequences for the justice system, for separation of powers,” Julia McPartlin, the president of the SSBA told Tortoise. “This looks to us like interference by the government in order to manipulate conviction rates for a particular type of crime”, she added.
A former senior judge, Lord Uist has described the plans as “constitutionally repugnant”.
But Scotland’s justice secretary Angela Constance said “there is overwhelming evidence that jurors are subject to preconceptions about rape that can impact the verdicts they reach, which is not the same in other serious crime trials.”
Scotland’s former first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, added her voice to the debate, calling for calm. “This issue matters. It should be beyond party politics. And it should not be beyond our body politic to approach it differently,” she wrote in the Guardian.
Earlier this year France provoked similar opposition from the judiciary when it was announced that most rape trials would take place without juries.
It’s still not clear when the Scottish pilot scheme will start, so any wholesale reform to trials will likely be some years away.