The Law Society of Scotland has warned that key parts of a new Scottish Government Bill could seriously undermine the integrity of Scotland’s criminal justice system.
Responding to a call for evidence on the Victims, Witnesses, and Justice Reform (Scotland) Bill from the Scottish Parliament’s Criminal Justice Committee, the Law Society has raised serious doubts over changes proposed particularly around juries in criminal cases.
The Bill proposes a number of simultaneous and interlinked changes, including scrapping the “not proven” verdict, cutting the size of juries from 15 to 12, a pilot of single judge-only rape trials and the introduction of a new Sexual Offences Court.
Law Society of Scotland President Sheila Webster said: “Small changes to how our criminal justice system operates can have large consequences, so we have significant concerns about the number of interlinked changes contained in this Bill.
“The concern and alarm of legal practitioners at the potential introduction of juryless trials for rape cases has been well documented. Trial by jury for serious crimes is a basic right and cornerstone of our justice system.
“Our longstanding opposition to removing the ‘not proven’ verdict is well known, but we’re also concerned about unanticipated consequences from other planned changes including cutting the size of Scottish juries from 15 to 12 members.
“The fundamental principle that guilt must be proven beyond reasonable doubt must be central to these reforms. If jury size is cut and ‘not proven’ scrapped, we believe Scotland should move to a requirement for unanimity among jurors for a conviction, as is the case in comparable jurisdictions.
“It’s important to note that we do support significant parts of the Bill including around the anonymity of complainers in sexual offence cases, the establishment of a new Commissioner, and a focus on trauma informed practice.”