A couple of weeks ago, my email contacts and I were in the habit of referring to “these uncertain times”. “Grim” appears a better adjective as I write now.
It takes the breath away, looking at the speed with which much of our economy, and our way of life, have simply collapsed in the face of a threat that was wholly unknown just a few months ago. Sadly, but inevitably, much of the core work of the legal profession has collapsed with it. The Society, supported by the profession in a notable unity of purpose, has performed heroically on many fronts at once in trying to mitigate the damage, but cannot realistically achieve much more than that.
This month's edition of the Journal, too, has been in a state of constant flux. Some of the content is as originally planned – legal life will go on; but much has changed. We have tried to bring in as much advice and support as we can, focusing on what is less likely to be out of date by the time it is read. That mission of support will clearly be an ongoing one for some time to come.
Yesterday, as I write, saw the publication of the Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill; as this blog is posted it has become law. While we can commend our Government for acting swiftly and decisively in the face of a genuine crisis, it is regrettable that it has taken instant and concerted action by the profession, with opposition MSPs, to prevent the suspension of some of the basic features of the solemn criminal trial, features by which Scots law has been held out as a beacon of justice for centuries. Even given the emergency situation, the plans to operate without juries went further than anything proposed elsewhere in the UK, never mind the extra six months on remand, and more.
While acknowledging that Lord Carloway has deep concerns over the “monumental backlog” of solemn trials that will await us, it is going too far to attempt such change in this manner. How much could be achieved through deploying the existing law on extension of time, more temporary judges, and underused court space, as proposed by defence lawyers? In truth, we do not immediately know, and on matters of such importance some additional time for scrutiny, and some urgent research to present to MSPs, while the country is in lockdown anyway, should have been imperative. Let us hope something more acceptable emerges from the three weeks now allowed.
Dictators, they say, take advantage of crisis situations, and while that label is not applied to the Scottish Government, we must be very careful both of the consequences of undue haste, and of the type of precedent we are setting for the future.
For now, my very best wishes that we all pull through this emergency.