REACTING to a furious outbreak of protest from the legal profession, Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf has dropped the controversial proposal to abandon trials by jury in Scotland from the emergency coronavirus-related legislation that was put before the Scottish Parliament yesterday.

Instead, Yousaf is to seek to build a compromise in consultation over the issue, before bringing back an amended proposal on April 21.

Even though the Justice Secretary had the backing of the head of Scotland’s judiciary, Lord Carloway, the Lord Justice General, and bodies representing lawyers and victims were opposed to the plan for trials by judges and sheriffs in serious cases – known as solemn cases in Scots law.

The Scottish Government had stated that “the justice system measures proposed in the emergency legislation include a power to allow for judge-only trials for the most serious cases, a power to design a programme of release for certain prisoners if needed – similar to the position in England and Wales – and other adjustments to criminal procedure, family law and civil justice to allow many hearings to take place remotely”.

The problem for the courts is the strict time limits on bringing accused people to trial. The proposed law suggests extending the time limits, but even this might not be enough with a backlog of 1000 trials in sight.

READ MORE: Joanna Cherry: Jury trials are a bedrock of our criminal justice system

Yousaf tweeted yesterday morning: “As I head to Parliament to debate Emergency Legislation let me give assurance that my colleagues & I are listening to concerns. Where there is compromise & consensus to be found we will seek it. This Bill & the circumstances around it are far too important to do otherwise.”

Law Society of Scotland president John Mulholland said: “Juries have been an important principle of the Scottish Criminal Justice System for hundreds of years. To remove this provision for the most serious of crimes would be a significant step and have major implications.

“We fully appreciate the desire to avoid any backlog in cases which might interfere with the proper administration of justice. However, we have not reached that point and so there is not sufficient justification to warrant trials without jury for serious criminal offences. We believe the case for taking such an extraordinary measure has not been made.”

Addressing the issue of jury-less trials, Lord Carloway said: “Some of these measures impact on long-standing and well-established elements of the system designed, in normal times, to form part of a suite of protections and safeguards for all those participating in, or affected by, the administration of justice. They are not to be altered lightly.

“The most noteworthy proposal in the bill is that which would allow for solemn trials to be heard without a jury; with the verdict determined instead by a judge or sheriff. This would represent a significant, if temporary, change to the way the courts conduct business.

“We will be facing a monumental backlog of solemn criminal trials once the current restrictions are lifted and trials can recommence. Unless action is taken to mitigate the impact of this, there will be substantial delays in bringing accused persons to trial. These are likely to stretch into years rather than months.

“Ultimately, Parliament must decide how it wishes to maintain public confidence in our justice system and allows the courts to continue to administer justice effectively.

“This means balancing the legitimate concerns about removing juries for a time-limited period against the potential for excessive delay and disruption of the system that the backlog will cause.”

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