THE Justice Secretary has disputed a suggestion that judge-only rape trials would be “authoritarian” as she launched sweeping reforms intended to support victims and witnesses.

On Wednesday, the Scottish Government published the first draft of the Victims, Witnesses and Justice Reform (Scotland) Bill, which will scrap the not proven verdict, reduce the size of criminal juries from 15 to 12 and create a new specialist sexual offences court.

The reforms will also create the role of a Victims and Witness Commissioner, require the majority needed for a guilty verdict to be two-thirds, and allow ministers to carry out a pilot of rape trials conducted by a single judge and without a jury.

Angela Constance, Scottish Justice Secretary, described the changes as the “most significant reform to our justice system in the history of devolution”.

READ MORE: SNP's last-ditch bid to scrutinise immigration crackdown bill rejected

Constance said the details of the pilot to allow judge-only trials in rape trials will be scrutinised by MSPs in parliament, and the details will be decided in collaboration with “our partners in the justice system”.

Asked to respond to criticism that the plans are “authoritarian” and had been linked by some to China, where jury trials do not exist, Constance said: “Well, there's a democratic parliamentary process, which we will, of course, be pursuing.

“In my role as Justice Secretary, I'm absolutely determined that we will have a debate in and around all the details of his landmark legislation that seeks to put victims at the very heart of our justice system, that debate will be a debate on the very highest of standards.”

Asked again by Sky News to respond to the criticism, the Justice Secretary replied: “I won't be appealing to the lowest common denominator in this debate because we owe victims of crime so much better.

The National: Constance and Yousaf met with victims as the draft bill was launchedConstance and Yousaf met with victims as the draft bill was launched (Image: PA)

“I am determined that as I pursue, in my journey as Justice Secretary, in implementing bold but balanced reforms that we will have a debate of the highest of standards.”

On whether the intention behind the plans was to reduce the backlog in the courts, Constance told The National: “The pilot for single judge juries is principally from the Lady Dorian review on how we respond to complainants of sexual offences and the need to build expertise in the growing number of particularly complex cases which now come forward.”

Kate Wallace, chief executive of Victim Support Scotland, said her organisation agrees with trying out a pilot for judge-only rape trials, pointing out that they had signed an open letter in conjunction with Scottish Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis calling for the reforms during the Covid-19 pandemic.

READ MORE: Anders Holch Povlsen caught speeding by BBC 'Highland Cops'

She told The National: “We’re not a fan of getting rid of juries per se, but there is really clear evidence that for sexual offences, juries really struggle, often.

“We think there is a case in sexual offences for a pilot, gather some evidence and try and find out whether the single judge approach is better.

“For me, I think being able to have someone who’s highly trained, who’s highly knowledgeable, who understands the legal system and process, and who you can absolutely make sure there are no rape myths, there’s no misinformation.

“There’s a clear understanding about verdicts available, all of that is really important, and I think that’s a benefit that single judge trials would give, as well as being a much more efficient process.”


Wallace added that she believed the move would be key to reducing the backlog in Scotland’s courts, which has only grown since the pandemic.

“Look at the state that we’re in for solemn trials now,” Wallace said.

“We have to try something different, and I think this is a good step forward.

“I would just urge everyone to remember it's a pilot, so it's about testing and learning.”

Rape Crisis Scotland noted that conviction rates for rape are the lowest for any crime, as within the number of cases that reach trial< the conviction rate is only 51%, compared to 91% for all other crimes.

READ MORE: Andrew Bridgen: MP kicked out of Tory party after Covid vaccine claims

“There is significant evidence that myths about sexual violence influence juries in their decision making,” a spokesperson said.

“There is a huge amount of research and evidence to suggest that these steps will not only make engaging with the justice system easier for survivors but lead to more justice being done.

“Proposals including the ending of the not proven verdict, the introduction of a specialist sexual offence court, anonymity for complainers in sexual offence cases, the potential for judge-led trials and independent legal representation will make a material difference to how survivors access justice.”

However, the charity said they have concerns about the reduction of the number required for a jury majority from eight out of 15 to eight out of 12.

“We know that juries are reluctant to convict in rape cases, and any change in jury majority could have a significant impact on convictions,” the spokesperson added.

Scottish Tory justice spokesperson Jamie Greene said his party supports the removal of the not proven verdict, but said they share “reservations” about jury-only trials, “given that it is a basic tenet of Scots law that those prosecuted for the most serious offences are tried before their peers”.