Two of my fresh-faced colleagues at the Bar are about to notch up a noteworthy first, the kind of landmark denied to so many of us who are much longer in the tooth.
Laura Thomson and Paul Harvey are taking part in a dramatisation of a murder trial as part of the Faculty’s support for the Bloody Scotland crime writing festival in Stirling.
Everything about the trial will mirror real-life and show what actually happens in Scotland’s courtrooms, as opposed to the sometimes stretched portrayals in fiction and on screen.
Everything, except that the public benches will be full to bursting. Because in real life you are more likely to have rows of empty benches to greet the jury’s verdict.
The Faculty has been associated with Bloody Scotland for a few years now, and we are delighted to sponsor the Gala Opening, the McIlvanney Prize for crime novel of the year and the torchlight procession, all on Friday next week (20 September).
We have been keen to help educate the public about how our criminal justice system works, and in the past Laura Thomson has cross-examined crime writers about how they ensure accuracy in their courtroom scenes. It proved popular and was sold out.
The idea this year is to recreate a murder trial from 1932 in which a man was accused of murdering his lover by strangling her with a pulley cord. It is a collaboration between the Faculty, the forensic science and crime-writing communities and Judicial Communications, and it is called You The Jury because 15 members of the audience are to be selected to give us a verdict. The play has been scripted by Douglas Skelton, an author of both true crime and crime fiction, and Laura Thomson and Paul Harvey are prosecuting and defence counsel. The witnesses include Professor Lorna Dawson, a forensic soil scientist of the James Hutton Institute, and Dr James Grieve, Emeritus Professor of Forensic Pathology at Aberdeen University.
To maintain the realism, a retired judge, Lord Stewart, will preside over the trial, and he’ll have a clerk of court and a macer. It all takes place in Stirling Sheriff Court, in a courtroom which has the ghosts of hundreds of trials. Initially, the play was to have been put on twice on Saturday (21 September). Both performances quickly sold out so another performance was arranged for Sunday afternoon, and it, too, has sold out.
Which brings me back to the rarity in modern times of packed public benches in our courtrooms.
I do remember an occasion when it was standing room only for one of my cases, and it was a very strange affair. A mongrel dog called Woofie had growled, barked and bared its teeth at a postman, without actually biting him, and a sheriff had ordered that Woofie be destroyed.
A campaign to save Woofie was given a lot of publicity, and word of the dog’s plight reached Brigitte Bardot, the former film star who had become an animal rights activist. So keen was she to help Woofie that she travelled to Scotland to attend the Appeal Court in Edinburgh where I was to challenge the sheriff’s order.
Undoubtedly due to Ms Bardot’s presence, there wasn’t a spare seat in the courtroom, which probably hadn’t been so busy since it hosted the trial of Madeleine Smith for allegedly poisoning her lover, more than 100 years earlier.
The appeal judges were persuaded, and Woofie was reprieved.
People don’t always have the time these days, even if they have the inclination, to pop along to their local sheriff court to see how justice is dispensed. It’s a pity. We can’t promise Hollywood stars, but all human life is there, and it is important that the public knows and values our distinctive Scottish system.
As those attending You The Jury will discover, there’s no such thing as a gavel in a Scottish court, no such thing as an opening speech. We have our own offences of housebreaking and culpable homicide, not burglary or manslaughter. We have three possible verdicts, not two. In so many ways, the Scottish system is unique.
What a bonus it would be if, as a result of the authentic and entertaining You The Jury, more people didn’t have to rely on books and television and found time to see for themselves what really happens in our courts.
Gordon Jackson, QC, is Dean of the Faculty of Advocates