Victims organisations appeal to MSPs to reconsider jury-less trials during pandemic

21 April, 2020

Today (20 April), representatives from victim support organisations across Scotland have published a joint open letter calling for MSPs to re-consider the decision to not allow jury-free trials to go ahead during the coronavirus outbreak.

The four leading victim organisations warn that blocking jury-free trials will create an unnecessary backlog of cases going to trial.

Within the letter, Victim Support Scotland, Rape Crisis Scotland, Scottish Women’s Aid and ASSIST explain the damaging and lasting impact that blocking jury-free trials will cause for some of Scotland’s most vulnerable victims and witnesses.

“It is unacceptable to subject victims to extra delays causing further trauma, upset and distress and we must act now to minimise,” the victim organisations say.

On 1 April, the Scottish Government withdrew draft proposals from the Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill for emergency measures allowing jury-less trials to take place. Such trials would have applied to serious cases such as murder, homicide, sexual assault and rape on a temporary basis while lockdown measures are in place to minimise the spread of COVID-19.

The letter raises a stark warning over the impact of lengthy delays to courts as a result of the necessary restriction measures which, according to data provided by the Scottish Courts & Tribunal Service (SCTS) could result in a backlog exceeding 1,600 cases. Such a backlog will take years for the courts to address.

One proposal being considered by the Scottish Government is the reduction in jury size to seven members. However, victims’ organisations have raised further concerns that this increases the risk of mistrial due to illness and will have a detrimental impact upon victims and witnesses of having to make repeat court visits.

Co-author of the letter, Kate Wallace, Chief Executive of Victim Support Scotland said:

“Mistrials have a devastating impact on victims as they are required to repeatedly re-live their trauma before a court. This can be worse than a trial not taking place. Proposals to reduce jury sizes make mistrial as a result of juror illness more likely, especially while the risk of contracting COVID-19 remains so high.

“Measures to permit jury-less trials may have been prematurely dismissed. Judge-only trials are already being used in domestic abuse cases, and far from eroding a 600-year-old ‘cornerstone’ of the Scottish legal system, this has allowed thousands of serious cases to be heard in Scotland without a jury present

“Along with Scottish Women’s Aid, Rape Crisis Scotland and ASSIST; Victim Support Scotland are calling on Members of the Scottish Parliament to fully consider all proposals that will reduce the impact of delays caused by coronavirus on people affected by serious crime.”

Victims organisations continue to engage positively with the Scottish Government, members of the Scottish Parliament Justice Committee and criminal justice agencies on measures related to coronavirus and people affected by crime.

COVID-19 and solemn criminal trials Scottish Government discussion document – April 2020

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