Police call to scrap the right to trial by jury

Sunday Herald | January 18, 2009
By Tom Gordon

SCOTLAND'S SENIOR police officers have told ministers the automatic right to trial by jury for the most serious crimes should be abolished. The Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland (Acpos) said juries should remain the general rule in criminal trials, but in long and complex cases "a jury may be disposed of ... with such trials proceeding in another manner".

Options include a single judge sitting alone or a panel of judges.

Acpos also said ministers should be consulted on which trials are run without a jury - a fundamental break from the current system, where the Crown Office decides how to prosecute cases independently of politicians.

One human rights lawyer last night called the police plan "a recipe for disaster".

Jury trials for the most serious, or "solemn", crimes have been a pillar of the Scottish legal system since the Middle Ages.

The only modern precedent for dispensing with a jury in solemn proceedings was the trial of two men accused of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, which was heard by three judges.

The Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission later concluded that the conviction arising from the trial of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was unsafe, and it is now being appealed.

Acpos made its submission to an SNP government consultation on modernising the jury system.

The consultation asked for views on ending jury trials in long and complex criminal cases, and using single judges or panels of judges instead.

Ministers say they have no plans to dispense with jury trials - "at least at this point" - but want to "open up the issues for debate".

In responses seen by the Sunday Herald, the country's full-time judges, sheriffs principal, the Law Society of Scotland, and the Glasgow Bar Association all demanded the retention of juries in solemn cases.

However, one temporary judge, Sheriff Roger Craik QC, said some criminal trials might be able to dispense with a jury, as happens in civil trials such as defamation.

Writing on behalf of Acpos, Fife Superintendent John Pow, its interim general secretary, said: "There are undoubtedly trials which, owing to their length or complexity, place a burden upon jurors, both in terms of commitment to serve, and the ability to fully process all the relevant information to reach a decision.

"Complexity ... may ultimately lead to misunderstanding the facts.

"It may be, as a general rule, all relevant trials should continue to be heard by a jury. There should be scope, however, for decisions to be made at the highest levels within Crown Office, and in consultation with representing agents and ministers that, on a needs-be basis, a jury may be disposed of in those trials where length or complexity are likely to be an issue, with such trials proceeding in another manner."

In their joint response, Scotland's High Court judges rejected the idea, saying :"Justice demands that a verdict be returned by a jury in all trials for serious crime, whether such trials are short or long."

Scotland's six Sheriffs Principal added: "Trial by jury is central to the principle that a person should be tried by fellow members of his or her own community."

The average Scottish jury trial lasts two days in the Sheriff Court and five days in the High Court, but some trials can drag on far longer.

In 2005, the prosecution of Transco for the gas blast which killed a family of four in Larkhall in 1999 occupied a jury for six months. The firm was fined £15 million. It tried and failed to dispense with a jury.

Human rights lawyer John Scott, vice president of the Society of Solicitor Advocates, said the police's attitude was "completely wrong".

He said: "It's a recipe for disaster. If you say the most difficult cases don't need a jury, you've abandoned the principle. So why not have judges for all cases and abandon juries completely?

"The police are looking for more convictions and they're frighted to say it."

He said the idea of involving ministers in prosecutions was equally wrong, and would lead to accusations of political interference.

Around 95% of court proceedings in Scotland already take place without a jury, less serious "summary" cases being heard by justices of the peace, magistrates, or sheriffs sitting alone.

However more serious, solemn crimes, are heard before a sheriff and jury or, in the gravest cases, such as rape and murder, in the High Court before a judge and jury.

There are around 575 jury trials in Sheriff Courts and 460 in the High Court each year.

The consultation found overwhelming support for raising the juror age limit from 65 to 70, in line with the rest of the UK.