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Scottish Parliament divided over juryless rape trials

Scottish Parliament divided over juryless rape trials


The Scottish Government's proposal for juryless rape trials faces scrutiny as a parliamentary report reveals division and flaws

In a recent development, the Scottish Parliament's Criminal Justice Committee released a comprehensive Stage 1 report on the Victims, Witnesses, and Justice Reform (Scotland) Bill. The report, spanning 197 pages and published on Good Friday, March 29, 2024, has sparked significant debate, particularly concerning contentious elements of the proposed legislation.

A central point of contention revolves around the Scottish Government's initiative to introduce juryless rape trials, a move met with a mixture of support and scepticism within the committee. Notably, the committee found itself evenly split on the issue, with four SNP members advocating for the pilot of juryless trials, while two Conservative and two Labour members opposed the idea.

Similarly, discussions surrounding the establishment of a new sexual offences court highlighted divisions among MSPs. While some members expressed support for this initiative, others favoured the creation of specialised divisions within existing courts, such as the High Court and Sheriff Court.

One of the key recommendations in the report is the proposed abolition of Scotland's unique "not proven" verdict. While the committee voiced support for this measure, concerns were raised regarding related changes aimed at reducing jury sizes and altering the majority required for conviction. The Law Society of Scotland has particularly criticised this aspect of the report, emphasising the potential unforeseen consequences of scrapping the "not proven" verdict without adequate balancing provisions.

Sheila Webster, President of the Law Society of Scotland, underscored the organisation's concerns, stating that the proposal for juryless trials lacks consensus and supporting evidence, warranting its removal from the bill. Additionally, Webster highlighted the need for caution regarding the abolition of the "not proven" verdict, emphasising the importance of retaining it in the absence of sufficient evidence to determine jury size and verdict majority.

Despite these criticisms, the Law Society remains supportive of several aspects of the bill, including provisions related to the anonymity of complainers in sexual offence cases, the establishment of a new Commissioner, and a focus on trauma-informed practice.

As the debate continues, stakeholders are urged to consider the complexities and implications of proposed reforms to ensure the delivery of fair and effective justice in Scotland.