Only yesterday, I was discussing provisions of the Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill which would have led to the suspension of trial by jury for indictable offences in Scotland.
It seems that the Scottish Government has had second thoughts about this issue and has decided not to proceed with these proposals – although Humza Yousaf MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Justice has said that the Government will revisit the matter sometime in the next month.
This is the essential problem with emergency legislation – the unexpected consequences which arise in such situations due to the fact that there is a lack of effective oversight or supervision.
Were the Government’s proposals a sinister attempt to undermine trial by jury or were they simply a necessary evil determined by social distancing requirements during the COVID-19 crisis?
Whatever reason you prefer, the Scottish Government has found itself at the centre of a backlash from the usual suspects – the Scottish Criminal Bar Association – and from its own supporters e.g. Joanna Cherry QC MP (see below):
This has led to a situation which no Government (irrespective of its political colours) likes to be in: having to make an embarrassing U-turn.
In normal times, of course, the Government would have circulated its proposals in a discussion paper well in advance of any draft legislation being published. In this way, various interested parties, such as the Faculty of Advocates and the Law Society of Scotland, could have made their views known and, for the Government, this allows a useful measurement of the temperature to be taken.
The Law Society of Scotland, which represents solicitors, bemoaned the lack of consultation by the Scottish Government (see below):
This is why emergency legislation should always contain a clause or a provision which allows it to be regularly reviewed by Parliament. In this way, very simple questions can be posed:
Is the law working properly?
Is it still necessary?
Please find below a link to the story about this development on the BBC website:
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.”
The situation caused by the COVID-19 continues to generate all sorts of legal consequences. One of the latest angles to be given wide publicity is the rising number of incidents involving assaults carried out by individuals who claim to be infected with the virus.
Several innocent members of the public – whether they be private individuals, shop workers, Police officers or National Health Service staff – have experienced confrontations with extremely anti-social individuals who have threatened to cough over them or spit on them.
One such incident occurred at the weekend, which was reported by BBC Scotland (see below):
Assault in Scotland is generally treated as a common law offence. It would involve a physical attack (or an attempted attack) on another person. Threats issued by a person to a victim would also constitute an assault if these put the victim into a state of fear and alarm.
In relation to the above incident, the clear intention of the teenager (even if he was completely healthy) was to put the healthcare worker into a state of fear and alarm. Hopefully, the victim will remain completely healthy and free of viral symptoms.
This is not, however, the point: her attacker clearly had the mens rea (the guilty mind) and he followed this through with the actus reus (the wrongful act). If there are witnesses and other evidence which can corroborate the incident, then the Police may have grounds to charge her attacker with assault.
If the criminal investigation proceeds to this stage, it will then be for the Procurator Fiscal (the local prosecutor) to determine whether there is enough evidence to initiate criminal proceedings against the accused.
The Lord Advocate, James Wolfe QC has issued a statement in relation to assaults on key workers:
“The Crown has a range of responses available to tackle unacceptable criminal conduct that may arise during the coronavirus pandemic. Any person who deliberately endangers life, or spreads fear and alarm by pretending to do so, will be dealt with robustly. It is difficult to imagine a more compelling case for prosecution in the public interest.”
Although assault is generally considered to be a common law offence, we should be mindful of the provisions of Section 90 of the Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Act 2012 which creates the statutory offence of assaulting or impeding the Police in the discharge of their duties. If an accused is successfully convicted of an offence in terms of Section 90, they may face a maximum prison sentence of 12 months and/or the imposition of a fine.
In England and Wales, a different approach is taken to assault: it is regarded as a statutory offence in terms of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861.
The Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales has stated that attacks on emergency workers may result in a prison sentence of two years being imposed should the accused (the defendant) be found guilty of such an assault (as per Section 38 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861).
Links to stories on the Sky News website about the rise of this type of criminal offence can be found below:
In the United States of America, incidents such as the above have more serious consequences: COVID-19 is classified as a ‘biological agent’. Attempts to spread or threats to spread the virus are treated as a terrorist offence (see below):
Our non-Scottish readers may have difficulty with ‘thole’ – actually to thole, a verb. It means to be able to endure something or someone. Scots will commonly say that they can’t thole a person , meaning that they dislike or have very little time for an individual. I understand that people in in the North of England also use this word.
Assize is probably a word that some lawyers might be familiar with: it means a trial diet (sitting) of a criminal court. Perhaps the best example of the word coming into popular use was the term ‘the Bloody Assizes’ presided over by the notorious, English hanging judge, Lord Chief Justice George Jeffreys in 1685. These events were, of course, a long time ago and followed the Duke of Monmouth’s ill fated rebellion against his uncle, King James VII of Scotland (James II of England, Ireland and Wales).
Enough of history for now …
In the legal context, if we take the two words together and put them into the following sentence: he has tholed his assize, it means that someone has endured prosecution and trial and has been vindicated or acquitted.
This is precisely what happened today at Edinburgh’s High Court of Justiciary (Scotland’s Supreme criminal court of trial) when the former First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond was acquitted of 13 charges that he had sexually assaulted 9 women. The jury found him not guilty of 12 charges and returned a not proven verdict for the remaining charge. Mr Salmond was tried on indictment under solemn procedure in the High Court of Justiciary. Solemn or jury trials are reserved for more serious types of crime and they take place in either the Sheriff Court or the High Court of Justiciary.
It is worth pointing out to our non-Scottish readership that, in Scottish criminal trials, we have 3 possible verdicts, namely:
Not guilty and not proven are both acquittal verdicts, with the not proven verdict being a peculiarly Scottish development. I noted that the BBC referred to this verdict as “highly controversial”. It’s usefulness is still debated to this day, but it is a common outcome of many trials.
It was the jury of 13 – originally 15 – men and women that acquitted Mr Salmond. The jury in a criminal trial is said to be the ‘Master of the facts’, whereas the judge is said to be ‘Master of law’. It is, therefore, the task of the jury to weigh up the evidence presented at trial and come to its verdict.
At this point, I should also remind our readers that it is not simply a case of prosecution and defence presenting their respective cases at the trial. This would be to ignore the subtleties at play: the prosecutor (in the Salmond case: Mr Alex Prentice QC) has to operate under the onus or burden of having toprove the allegations against the accused. All the defence has to do is to deny the allegations. We operate in a system of criminal justice which emphasises the presumption of innocence.
I have been asked by several people over the last few weeks to predict the outcome of the Salmond trial. I have responded in the following way: I do not know Mr Salmond; and I have never met him or his accusers (I do not know these individuals either), so how can I give you a reasoned opinion?
Ah, but my questioners persist: surely, you have been following accounts of the trial via the media? To which I respond, not really …
Now the media does a very important job, but it can only provide us with a subjective view of things. Journalists will prioritise what they think are significant factors – no matter how impartial they think that they are being. Trial by media is never a good thing; it is to the jury alone that we entrust the task of determining the innocence or guilt of the accused.
We shall never know the precise motivations behind the jury’s decision today. Section 8 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 makes it a criminal offence for jurors to reveal the reasons for their decisions (an interesting book about a jury trial in England, but not about the jurors’ deliberations, is The Juryman’s Tale by Trevor Grove (Bloomsbury: 2000).
It may be trite to say this, but there are no such things as open and shut cases. Things (the evidence) can and do sound very different in the surroundings of a court room. I have seen overly confident prosecutors come swiftly undone when the defence emphasises a flaw in the prosecution’s arguments. Here comes the nagging doubt I think; the chink in the armour; the reasonable doubt which heralds an acquittal verdict. Nothing is ever certain.
Whatever your views or feelings about Alex Salmond Esquire, this is exactly what happened today: the jury weighed up the prosecution’s case, found it deficient (in that it did not meet the criminal standard of proof) and acquitted the accused.
A link to an article about the Salmond verdict on the BBC website can be found below:
Scotland’s former first minister is found not guilty on 12 charges, while another allegation is found not proven.
Well, not if you’re under 25 according to recent proposals published by the Scottish Sentencing Council as part of a public consultation process. The main function of the Scottish Sentencing Council is to demystify sentencing decisions and, therefore, educate the public about these matters.
The current proposal might seem very provocative and is bound to divide public opinion. Crime, after all, is a very emotive issue and everyone has an opinion about it whether you have been the victim or the criminal. The purpose of criminal law is about the State punishing those individuals who have broken the rules of the community by engaging in dangerous and/or anti-social activities.
The rationale for the Scottish Sentencing Council’s proposal is that scientific research (carried out by the University of Edinburgh) seems to show that the brains of people aged under 25 years have not fully developed i.e. matured.
Now, it is by no means certain that such a proposal will be implemented and the Scottish Sentencing Council is urging members of the public to respond to its consultation with their opinions on the matter.
It is certainly part of a wider strategy which fits in with attempts by the Scottish Government to reduce the numbers of people who are sent to prison each year. There is now perhaps a recognition that prison doesn’t always work. There has been a presumption operating for several years in Scotland, that people will not be sent to prison if the offence would normally be punished by a sentence of less than 6 months. Obviously, this presumption would be ignored if, for example, the offender was a person who persistently broke the rules.
Over the last year, this Blog has looked at a number of initiatives which have taken place which have been about taking different approaches to crime prevention or the rehabilitation of offenders.
In the Autumn (or Fall), I spoke to a group of students about an initiative called the “Call-In-Scheme” where Avon and Somerset Police in England were targeting first offenders aged between 16 and 21 who have been caught dealing drugs. The choice: go to court, be convicted with all the consequences this outcome will entail or go straight. Participants in the scheme were be selected by a panel. Predictably, such an approach sharply divided my audience.
Crime and kindness?
Last March, two American judges – Victoria Pratt and Ginger Lerner-Wren we’re invited to Scotland by Community Justice Scotland, a publicly funded body, where they were hoping to meet hundreds of people who deal with the Scottish criminal justice system.
The two judges were keen to emphasise that there should be more compassion in the criminal justice system when dealing with offenders. They pointed to impressive results in the United States – a New York court alone has seen a dramatic decrease of 20% in youth crime and a 10% reduction in crime overall by using radical methods to deal with offenders. One of the judges, Ginger Lerner-Wren established one of the first mental health courts anywhere in the world. The aim of this court (based in Florida) was to promote treatment of offenders as an alternative to traditional forms of punishment. Judge Pratt, on the other hand, specialises in “procedural justice” which works on the basis “that if people before the courts perceive they are being treated fairly and with dignity and respect, they’ll come to respect the courts, complete their sentences and be more likely to obey the law.”
The Glasgow Alcohol Court
This type of approach has already being piloted in Scotland: Sheriffs in Glasgow deal with cases where alcohol is a ‘contributory factor’ in crime. The Sheriff Alcohol Court has been operating since 2018 and its lifespan was extended in 2019. It now deals with domestic abuse cases involving alcohol. Punishments other than prison sentences are handed out by this court e.g. drug and alcohol treatment orders and community service orders. This approach recognises that criminals can turn their lives around and can become law abiding members of society. Being given a drug treatment order is not an easy option. Participants in schemes such as these are regularly tested and monitored. Break the rules and you will go to jail.
Age of criminal responsibility
In Scotland, in common with many penal systems around the world, we do use a person’s age to determine criminal responsibility. Currently, the age of criminal responsibility is 12 and there is a debate about whether this should be raised even higher. It is worth remembering that, for many years (until 2019 in fact), Scotland had one of the lowest ages of criminal responsibility anywhere in the Western World i.e. 8 years of age.
Somewhat mitigating this feature of Scottish criminal law was the fact that children were not tried in adult courts. The Children’s Hearing or Panel system was primarily set up for this very purpose. It was considered a revolutionary approach because it recognised that by stigmatising (and criminalising) children at a very early age, society could set them on a path from which there was no means of redemption. If you effectively abandoned a child at an early age, you were condemning them to a very grim future where they could (potentially) be in and out of prison for the rest of their lives.
The Scottish Sentencing Council’s proposal is very interesting and it will certainly form part of a lively discussion on how we continue to deal with crime in this country. The public now has 12 weeks to get involved in the consultation by giving their opinions on the matter.
It is important to appreciate that, under the proposals, judges will still be able to send people under 25 to prison if they think this is an appropriate punishment. What the proposals are allowing judges to do is to look more closely at a young person’s background e.g. mental health issues before sentence is passed. It remains the case that, where certain crimes are concerned, the imposition of a prison sentence will be most the appropriate action to take because the issue of public safety will be paramount. Clearly, someone like the notorious child killer Aaron Campbell, will not benefit from the proposals merely because they are under the age of 25.
A link to an article on the BBC News app about theScottish Sentencing Council’s proposal can be found below:
Draft sentencing guidelines say younger offenders should be treated differently because their brains are still developing.
As someone who works more in the civil rather than the criminal legal tradition, I tend to focus more on the outcome of obtaining damages or compensation for the victim of an industrial or work-place accident.
It’s simply a matter of horses for courses i.e. you stick to what you know or what you’re trained to do. Admittedly, most of the victims of industrial accidents that I have represented are perhaps more focused on obtaining compensation for their injuries – especially if these are life changing. Any criminal liability that the employer may have is purely incidental i.e. something of a side issue. Then again, I suppose you could say that about most civil actions where the criminality of the pursuer remains firmly in the background (think dangerous and careless driving incidents).
The victim of a work-place delict (or tort) may get some satisfaction from their employer or its officers and managers appearing in the dock at a subsequent criminal trial, but this is unlikely to be satisfying in the long term. It will not allow them to get their lives back on track or to move on; payment of compensation is perhaps a more satisfactory conclusion to things. I make that last statement fully in the knowledge that no amount of money can truly give victims back what they have lost.
Yet, every so often, I come across a story or an incident which underlines the importance of criminal law regarding industrial or work-place accidents.
In 2015, one such incident occurred onboard Aquarius, a fishing trawler which operated out of the North East Scottish fishing port of Banff. Serious failings in the operation of the vessel led to the death of a crewman. The victim, 47 year old, Annang Neurtey from Ghana, was swept overboard: his body has never been recovered – adding immensely to the grief of his family.
Anyone who has read Sebastian Junger’s 1997 novel, The Perfect Storm (or viewed the film adaptation of 2000) will be readily familiar with the dangers that fishing folk face at sea. That said, the tragedy which befell Annang Neurtey was entirely avoidable. If the skipper of the Aquarius had properly supervised the crew and followed basic safety procedures, the accident would not have occurred.
Following Mr Neurtey’s death, MB Aquarius Ltd of Buckie, the company which owned and operated the vessel, was investigated by Police Scotland and the Marine and Coastguard Agency. The conclusions reached by investigators were that basic risk assessments had not been properly carried out and that the employer had failed to put a safe system of working in place.
At a subsequent criminal prosecution against Mr Neurtey’s employer for health and safety breaches at Aberdeen Sheriff Court, the company pleaded guilty to breaches of marine safety laws, namely, Regulation 5(1) of the Merchant Shipping and Fishing Vessels (Health and Safety at Work) Regulations 1997 and Sections 85 and 86 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995.
A fine of £50,000 was imposed on the employer – it would have been £75,000 had an early plea of guilty not been entered by the company.
Mr Neurtey’s family will doubtless be contemplating a civil action for recovery of damages – unless of course his employer does the decent thing and quickly settles such a claim.
A link to the Marine and Coastguard Agency’s Report of its findings concerning Mr Neurtey’s death can be found below:
Have concerns about health and safety gone mad? The former British Prime Minister, David Cameron certainly thought so when his Coalition Government (2010-15) introduced the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 (in particular, Section 69 of the said legislation) which removed the right to bring a civil claim for breaches of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.
It does not mean that employees can no longer bring a civil claim if an employer breaches its duty of care, but significantly claimants will no longer benefit from the presumption of strict liability previously imposed on organisations. Since this reform, it will be essential for claimants to prove negligence on the part of their employers for breaches of health and safety.
We would, however, do well to remember our history: concerns about health and safety were often ignored in the not so distant past.
The phrase “dark satanic mills” comes from the poem, And did those feet in ancient time by William Blake. The phrase has been interpreted as a searing indictment of the wickedness and exploitative practices of 19th Century British industrialists who most certainly put profit before people. This is why rare individuals such as the Welsh born industrialist, Robert Owen and his New Lanark Mills we’re regarded as truly radical and progressive employers.
The words of Blake’s poem were later put to music by the composer, Hubert Parry, and is better known as Jerusalem – an alternative English National Anthem for many because of its rallying call for social justice for the poor and the oppressed.
Over time, admittedly, the UK Parliament did intervene by bringing in legislation to curb some of the frankly dangerous and disreputable practices which had been tolerated in British factories, shipyards and mines. With the industrial revolution, Britain did indeed become the ‘workshop of the world’, but this accolade disguised the terrible human cost which could be measured in countless deaths, terrible injuries and overwhelmingly misery.
Some months ago, I saw a photograph by Bill Brandt in The Independent’s Saturday Magazine which documented life in an East Durham mining community. I was pretty shocked by what I saw: the houses of the miners had no windows. Think of it: these workers spent their days down the pit in almost total darkness. More shocking, was the fact that Brandt had taken the photograph as recently as 1937.
Yet surely, the bad old days are long gone? The British work-place has become a much safer place? Undoubtedly, as we shall see, employers have become much more aware of their responsibilities to their employees and workers in respect of the issue of health and safety.
That said, if you look at the info graphic produced below from the UK Health and Safety Executive, poor conditions and practices in British work-places still result in unacceptably high levels of injuries and illness – in 2019!
Recently, Amazon, the global internet retailer, received very unwelcome media attention about the number of industrial injuries which have occurred in its UK premises. It’s probably fair to say that Amazon UK does not enjoy a particularly good reputation amongst trade unions regarding its employment practices and the recent media stories only compound this state of affairs.
Links to stories about Amazon UK on Sky News and Channel 4 News can be found below:
It is worth noting that the employer’s common law duties which aim to protect the health and safety of employees establishes a regime of civil liability. In other words, should the employer breach these duties, he will most likely face a civil action by the injured employee who will be attempting to recover compensation.
The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, on the other hand, makes an employers criminally liable if they fail to take reasonably practicable steps to protect the health and safety of their employees. An employer will, therefore, face penalties in a criminal court for breaches of the Act.
The Health and Safety (Offences) Act 2008
The provisions of this Act came into force on 16 January 2009 and apply to offences committed after this date by employers. Scottish criminal courts will now have the power to impose maximum fines of £20,000 on employers who breach health and safety rules. In the most serious cases where health and safety rules have been breached or ignored, the courts may also have the right to imprison those responsible.
The Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010
Sections 65-68 of the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010 should make it easier for organisations to face prosecution in Scotland in relation to allegations of criminal wrongdoing. According to Section 65, the term “organisation” applies to any of the following bodies:
a body corporate;
an unincorporated association;
a body of trustees;
a government department;
a part of the Scottish Administration;
any other entity which is not an individual
Such proceedings against organisations may be on indictment (Section 66) or on complaint (Section 67).
For a long time, it has been argued that an organisational culture which promotes lax practices or downright dangerous behaviour can lead to the commission of criminal offences. This an attempt to make organisations more accountable under the criminal law for conduct which causes harm to members of the public.
Overall, this means that an employer could face both a criminal action and a civil action for damages where he has neglected to obey the criminal law and the common law in respect of the employee’s health and safety.
If only we need reminding that health and safety remains a major issue in the work-place, we need only look to a story from Scotland which appeared in national media outlets just this week.
Workers at the Mossmorran and Ineos chemical plants took unauthorised industrial action (wildcat strikes) which was motivated by serious concerns about the lack of health and safety in the work-place. Happily, the employers seem to be listening to the concerns and the employees are now back at work.
Failure by employers to take health and safety issues seriously can leave themselves open to both civil and criminal liability. During Britain’s Industrial Revolution (from the 18th to the early 20th Centuries), it’s true to say that there was no such thing as a culture of health and safety in the work-place. Industrialists like Robert Owen were remarkable because they broke with the paradigm of British industrial practice i.e. workers were resources to be used up and tossed aside when no longer needed.
The growth of the trade union movement and the emergence of the British Labour Party (itself a creation of the union movement) led to pressure for change and tangible improvements were made to working practices. Despite these advances, cases such as the death of Annang Neurtey and the figures from the Health and Safety Executive surely caution us against complacency.
Links to reports on the BBC Scotland website about the industrial action can be found below:
Union GMB said the workers had “continuously raised their concerns about conditions and safety on-site”.
Apparently, the Chinese have a proverb which translates something along the following lines: the Devil gives you your family; thank all Gods that you can choose your friends!
Quite an apt statement to lead me into my next blog. Families can be great; they can also be problematic. This point is emphasised by reference to a recent decision of the Appeal Court of the High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh.
In Michael Scott Ritchie v Her Majesty’s Advocate  HCJAC 7 HCA2019/327/X, the Appeal Court had to consider whether a Sheriff sitting at Elgin had misdirected the jury and, consequently, a miscarriage of justice had occurred.
The convicted person or appellant, Michael Ritchie, certainly thought so. He had appeared at Elgin Sheriff Court in 2019, charged on indictment in respect of the following matters:
“on 11 or 12 May 2018 you … did break into the dwelling house owned by [JR] … at Strathville, South Street, Forres, Moray and steal a quantity of jewellery, medals, coins and a box;
You … did commit this offence while on bail, having been granted bail on 15 June 2017 at Elgin Sheriff Court.”
He was convicted of the offences libelled above after the conclusion of a solemn (jury) trial and sentenced to 21 months in prison (3 months of which were for the bail violation).
Part of the evidence put forward to convict Ritchie by the Depute Procurator Fiscal (the prosecutor for the benefit of our non-Scottish readers) was a small black torch which was found at the locus of the crime. The item was not a possession of the householder. The torch contained traces of Ritchie’s DNA and he admitted that the item belonged to him. ‘Ritchie further admitted that he had been about 150 yards from the vicinity of the crime scene, but he strongly asserted that he was not guilty of any offence.
DNA – infallible evidence?
This is where the case gets quite interesting: Ritchie stated that although his DNA was on the torch, he had not committed the crime of house-breaking (or burglary as our friends from common law jurisdictions would say). He was not responsible for leaving it at the locus.
In other words, Ritchie was contending that, merely because his DNA happened to be on the torch found at the crime scene, this in itself was not conclusive evidence of his guilt. Ritchie, of course, was using a special defence available in Scots Law known as incrimination – he was claiming that someone else [his brother] had committed the offence. Interestingly, Ritchie’s brother had previous convictions for theft, but these had involved commercial premises.
He further asserted that he may have loaned a torch to his brother in the last month or so. He contended that the torch given to his brother was a black rubber one. Unfortunately, for Ritchie the torch found at the locus was a black metallic item.
When speaking to students about the issue of corroboration in criminal law, I often ask them which sources of evidence might be used by a prosecutor to help secure a conviction? DNA evidence will almost always feature in the range of answers that I am given.
… but I should urge caution: it’s not an infallible source of evidence. It has to be put in context and the onus (or burden) about what the DNA tells the Court i.e. whether it can point the way to the accused being guilty beyond reasonable doubt remains very much the responsibility of the prosecution (or Crown).
The role of the Sheriff and the jury
In a solemn trial, there is a strict division of responsibility: the jury is regarded as Master of the facts; whereas the Sheriff is Master of the law.
The jury will, therefore, determine the guilt or innocence of the accused based upon the evaluation of the evidence presented during the trial. The burden of proof rests with the prosecutor (representing the Crown or the State) in that s/he must convince the jury that the accused is guilty of the charge(s) contained in the indictment.
When summarising the evidence that has been presented to the court, the Sheriff must do so in a way that avoids the introduction of bias. The jury must be able to come to its own determination of the facts.
If guilt is established, it is then the task of the Sheriff to impose the appropriate sentence – usually at a subsequent hearing (for which there is no need for the jury to be present).
The main thrust of Ritchie’s appeal to the High Court in Edinburgh was that the Sheriff had misdirected the jury which led to him being wrongly convicted.
Sadly, for Ritchie, the Appeal Court did not agree.
Statements by the Procurator Fiscal Depute concerning the veracity of Ritchie’s responses during a Police interview did not suggest that the onus was now placed on the defence to prove his innocence. An accused in a Scottish criminal trial is under no obligation to prove his/her innocence. Innocence is, after all, presumed and it remains the task for the prosecution to prove guilt.
Lord Carloway, the Lord Justice General, giving the opinion of the Appeal Court noted:
‘… that the sheriff made it clear that the onus remained on the Crown and that there was no such onus on the defence. The sheriff’s reference to hypothetical situations was merited in the circumstances. Anything said by the PFD [Procurator Fiscal Depute] was adequately covered by the sheriff in her general directions on onus; the sheriff being in the best position to determine what was required in order to correct any misconception that the jury might have had from what the PFD had said.’
Regarding the presence of the torch (belonging to the accused) at the locus, this was in itself a ‘highly incriminatory’ fact. Significantly, Ritchie had not identified the item when presented during his trial as being the torch that he claimed to have previously supplied to his brother.
In reviewing the testimony of the expert witnesses who spoke to the DNA evidence at the trial, Lord Carloway had the following to say:
‘Expert evidence about the deposit of DNA was led by both the Crown and the defence. There were various scenarios put to the experts about how DNA can be deposited, how long it could remain, how it could be transferred and whether it was primary or secondary. The sheriff described all of this evidence as essentially common sense. There was, however, a disagreement between the experts in relation to four peaks, which had been identified from the DNA print-out upon testing.’
The four peaks could either be artefacts (the Crown) or DNA belonging to an unknown person or persons (the defence).
The Crown submitted in its argument to the Appeal Court that the Sheriff had correctly emphasised to the jury “to scrutinise the evidence with care and be satisfied that there was an evidential basis for the submissions which had been made to them.”
Taking all of the above matters into consideration, there was no evidence to suggest that Michael Ritchie had suffered a miscarriage of justice and his appeal was refused.
A link to the judgement of the Appeal Court can be found below: