I seem to be on a theme today due to COVID-19.
The latest legal development is the Scottish Government’s attempt to deal with the crisis by passing an emergency Bill through the Scottish Parliament in one day. The Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill undoubtedly contains welcome measures e.g. protection for tenants against eviction by their landlords throughout the duration of the crisis.
The relevant provisions of the Bill are contained in Section 11(1) and (4) respectively and are as follows:
“The Scottish Ministers may by regulations provide that trials on indictment are to be conducted by the court sitting without a jury.”
This would, in effect, create a situation where a Sheriff or a Lord Commissioner of Justiciary in a solemn trial was both Master of the Law and Master of fact.
Not everyone is welcoming the Bill in its entirety: the Scottish Criminal Bar Association has been extremely critical of proposals which would, in particular, permit the temporary abolition of trial by jury (solemn trials).
Prominent members of the Scottish National Party, such as Joanna Cherry QC MP, have stated their extremely strong opposition to the proposals (see Tweet below):
Ronnie Renucci QC, Chair of the Scottish Criminal Bar Association, issued the following statement attacking the Bill’s provisions in relation to jury trials:
“The proposals in this bill include attacks on principles that have been built over 600 years and are at the very cornerstone of Scotland’s criminal justice system and democratic tradition. … Any changes, however temporary, should not erode important principles of our legal system which would have the effect of undermining or ignoring the citizen’s rights to justice. They should not at a stroke remove the fundamental principle of the right of those citizens charged with serious offences to a trial by a jury of their peers within a reasonable time. … The SCBA believes that these draconian measures seeking to bring about seismic changes to our system of justice are premature, disproportionate and ill-advised. They are at best a knee-jerk reaction to an as yet unquantified problem instigated by panic or at worst, something far more sinister.”
As Mr Renucci also points out in his statement, juries have been in existence in Scotland since the reign of King Alexander II (1214-49). Even during the Second World War, the practice of trial by jury continued – albeit restricted to 7 jurors as opposed to the usual number of 15.
I should, of course, point out that the vast majority of criminal trials (95%) in Scotland are conducted in the lower criminal courts – the Justice of the Peace and Sheriff Courts – under summary procedure. In England and Wales, the figures are similar. Yet, the emotional attachment to the right of trial by jury remains very strong in both jurisdictions.
We should not, however, ignore or downplay the value of solemn trials in that they permit someone who is accused of serious criminal offences (e.g. former Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond) to be tried by a jury of his/her peers. A
There are unhappy precedents for restricting the right to trial by jury.
In Northern Ireland, during the period known euphemistically as ‘The Troubles‘, the Diplock Courts were established under the provisions of the Northern Ireland Act 1973. This legislation abolished the right to trial by jury for terrorism related offences. The rationale behind this development was to curb juror intimidation by paramilitary organisations such as the Provisional IRA and the Ulster Defence Association. These courts, where one judge presided, were highly controversial. They were only abolished comparatively recently as a result of the introduction of the Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Act 2007.
During the first and second terms of the Blair Government (1997-2001 and 2001-2005 respectively), attempts were made to curtail the right to trial by jury in England and Wales. This would have applied to offences triable either way i.e. they could be tried under summary procedure or on indictment. In such situations, it is the choice of the accused (the defendant) to decide which sort of trial they should face – trial by magistrates or trial by jury. The Blair Government’s proposals were not welcomed and eventually sank beneath the waves of protest from a number of Mr Blair’s own MPs, members of the House of Lords, the Law Society and the Bar Council (to name but a few opponents).
Some 20 years ago, when Prime Minister Blair’s Government proposed restrictions on the right to trial by jury, the words of Lord Devlin, a former Law Lord, were often quoted. Lord Devlin’s remarks are worth repeating in the current context:
“…trial by jury is more than an instrument of Justice and more than one wheel of the constitution: it is the lamp that shows that freedom lives.”
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Copyright Seán J Crossan, 31 March 2020