Lord Carloway - scrap most juries during virus outbreak. AN ATTEMPT by Scotland’s top judge and the Scottish Government to ‘temporarily’ axe jury trials as part of emergency Coronavirus legislation – was withdrawn from legislation passing Holyrood today - after the legal profession & politicians criticised the move.
However – the plan to axe juries in many trials – which Scotland’s Lord Justice General Lord Carloway attempted to justify as a method of ‘speeding up’ justice – has not been totally dropped by the Scottish Government.
Constitutional Relations Secretary Michael Russell told the Scottish Parliament that Ministers will revisit the issue of pushing through emergency reforms of the justice system at a later date.
Mr Russell said further discussions would “allow an intensive and wide-ranging discussion by all interested parties, including victims, whose voice has not yet been fully heard, about the right way to ensure that justice continues to be done in Scotland”.
The emergency legislation being heard today (Wednesday) at Holyrood had proposed allowing judge-only trials for the most serious charges to “ensure that criminal justice systems can continue to operate during the coronavirus restrictions”.
Scotland’s top judge – Lord Carloway (real name Colin Sutherland) claimed axing juries would speed up justice and prevent a “monumental backlog”.
Lord Carloway said in a statement: “We will be facing a monumental backlog of solemn criminal trials once the current restrictions are lifted and trials can recommence. Unless action is taken to mitigate the impact of this, there will be substantial delays in bringing accused persons to trial. These are likely to stretch into years rather than months. The delays will be unprecedented in Scottish legal history. This will have many adverse impacts, including uncertainty for the accused, complainers and witnesses. Such delays will have a highly disruptive effect on their lives, and potentially on the wider system.”
However, the plan drew ire from many quarters, including even SNP politicians where Justice spokeswoman Joanna Cherry criticised the plan in a tweet – stating: "I don’t believe this is necessary. Trials being delayed is enough. This is the obvious compromise. The reality is that life is on hold for everyone."
Last night, John Mulholland, President of the Law Society of Scotland said: “We respect the fact that the public health threat posed by Covid-19 has presented government with an unprecedented challenge. However, it should not limit our responsibility for ensuring proper scrutiny of measures proposed and an understanding of the impact they may have.
“Juries have been an important principle of the Scottish Criminal Justice system for hundreds of years. To remove this provision for the most serious of crimes would be a significant step and have major implications. We fully appreciate the desire to avoid any backlog in cases which might interfere with the proper administration of justice. However, we have not reached that point and so there is not sufficient justification to warrant trials without jury for serious criminal offences. We believe the case for taking such an extraordinary measure has not been made.
“We have taken this view after consulting with many of the most experienced solicitors in criminal law and those with direct experience of serious criminal cases. There is deep concern, right across the legal profession, at the reform being proposed.
“We want to continue to work positively with the Scottish Government around the changes which are necessary to our justice system to deal with the spread of Covid-19. The past few weeks have proved that we need to be flexible and responsive to emerging situations and creative in our solutions. There are provisions within current legislation which allow flexibility and it is important that these are explored fully before additional measures are introduced.”
And in an updated statement today, the Law Society of Scotland President said: “I am reassured that the Scottish Government has listened to the concerns raised by the Law Society on behalf of our members about the possibility of allowing trials to take place without a jury in the most serious of cases. I would like to thank all our members who took the time to provide their views on this fundamental issue. We look forward to engaging positively with the Scottish Government and partners as they investigate practical ways to ensure that justice can continue to be carried out effectively during the outbreak."
responded to the withdrawal of the jury axe proposal, saying: “I am reassured that the Scottish Government has listened to the concerns raised by the Law Society on behalf of our members about the possibility of allowing trials to take place without a jury in the most serious of cases.”
The Scottish Government also took the opportunity to use the Coronavirus bill to extend deadlines for Freedom of Information responses – from 20 days to 60 days – however in another concession from the Scottish Government after criticism from the Libdems & Scottish Greens - Europe minister Jenny Gilruth announced amendments will be tabled to address concerns over the extension of the deadline for FOI requests.
The ‘temporary’ nature of the measures announced today can be legally enforced for the next 18 months, a term that would include the need for Parliament to agree to two separate six-month extensions.
Lord Carloway’s proposal to axe juries in most trials can be read in full, below: LJG response to Coronavirus Bill
The Lord Justice General has made a statement in response to the Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill introduced in the Scottish Parliament today.
In his statement, the Lord Justice General said: "The Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill introduced in the Scottish Parliament today contains provisions relating to the justice system. Some of these measures impact on long-standing and well-established elements of the system designed, in normal times, to form part of a suite of protections and safeguards for all those participating in, or affected by, the administration of justice. They are not to be altered lightly.
"These are not normal times. My overriding concern is to ensure that, in these extreme circumstances, we can continue to preserve the fair, effective, and efficient administration of justice, in the hope that we can facilitate the return to normal operations as early as is possible.
"The most noteworthy proposal in the Bill is that which would allow for solemn trials to be heard without a jury; with the verdict determined instead by a judge or sheriff. This would represent a significant, if temporary, change to the way the courts conduct business.
"I would like to set out the rationale for this, from the perspective of the judiciary and courts. We will be facing a monumental backlog of solemn criminal trials once the current restrictions are lifted and trials can recommence. Unless action is taken to mitigate the impact of this, there will be substantial delays in bringing accused persons to trial. These are likely to stretch into years rather than months. The delays will be unprecedented in Scottish legal history. This will have many adverse impacts, including uncertainty for the accused, complainers and witnesses. Such delays will have a highly disruptive effect on their lives, and potentially on the wider system.
"The scale of the potential backlog is very daunting. At a conservative estimate, the backlog will be over 1000 trials, on the optimistic assumption that the restrictions are lifted by the start of the summer. Before the current crisis began, measures were already being put in place to help the High Court process an unprecedented number of new indictments each year. The increasing levels of prosecution would have stretched the Court’s capacity to its limits. This new challenge threatens to overwhelm the system. Jury citation will prove difficult and take longer, in a country recovering from high sickness rates, schools and public services re-commencing, business recovering after lengthy staff absences and people taking missed holidays after lengthy restrictions.
"Anything that can be done, therefore, to address the forthcoming backlog will help avert a critical logjam in the system in the period of recovery once restrictions are lifted. Of course some form of time limitation on this measure is required, although it would be needed for all of the period during which the country recovers from the full effects of the current suspension of trial business in the courts.
"Ultimately, Parliament must decide how it wishes to maintain public confidence in our justice system and allows the courts to continue to administer justice effectively. This means balancing the legitimate concerns about removing juries for a time-limited period against the potential for excessive delay and disruption of the system that the backlog will cause. My concern is that the potential delay and disruption, if mitigatory measures are not taken, may be so severe that it will compromise the effective administration of justice for some years to come."
This is a Parliamentary Bill introduced by the Scottish Ministers and it will be for them to draft any regulations further to the Bill’s passage, including when and how the measure discussed in the statement might be used.
The Lord Justice General has explained that “ultimately Parliament must decide how it wishes to maintain public confidence in our justice system and allows the courts to continue to administer justice effectively”.