Judiciary backs calls for ‘not proven’ verdict to remain

Under the Criminal Verdicts (Scotland) Bill, the so-called 'third verdict' would be removed. Picture: John Devlin
Under the Criminal Verdicts (Scotland) Bill, the so-called 'third verdict' would be removed. Picture: John Devlin
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Scotland’s “not proven” verdict should be retained amid a “media-driven” campaign to see it scrapped, it has been claimed.

Under the Criminal Verdicts (Scotland) Bill, the so-called “third verdict” would be removed, with a guilty verdict requiring an increased majority of jurors. But while the move has the backing of Police Scotland, a number of Justices of the Peace and honorary sheriffs have written to the Scottish Government calling for the verdict to remain in place.

The proposed legislation, introduced by Labour MSP Michael McMahon, is currently being considered by the Scottish Parliament’s justice committee.

The bill would make “guilty” and “not guilty” the only verdicts available to juries. It would also increase from eight to ten the number of jurors needed for a guilty verdict in criminal trials.

But in a series of submissions on the bill, MSPs are urged to maintain the status quo.

John Hutchison, a JP and honorary sheriff, said: “I do feel that the present desire to remove the not proven verdict is substantially media-driven and that those involved in the justice system should be playing a stronger part in explaining its use.

“If we were to approach this logically, it is the ‘not guilty’ verdict that should be under examination.”

Mr Hutchison said there was a desire to see “exculpatory” sentences, something that was being driven by the media.

In his submission, another JP, John Lawless, said part of the problem with the not proven verdict was public understanding.

He said: “I would suggest that the general public’s understanding of the trial process is gleaned from TV and cinema, where guilty/not guilty decisions are pronounced.

“However, in both summary and solemn, what has actually happened is that the charge has been proven beyond reasonable doubt or not proven. I would contend that in actual fact it is not known if a party is guilty/not guilty, only that the charge can be proven or is not proven.”

Unique to Scotland, “not proven” is used where juries acquit due to insufficient evidence. It was dubbed the “bastard verdict” by author Sir Walter Scott, who was a sheriff in Selkirk.

Last year, justice secretary Michael Matheson announced that controversial plans to scrap the centuries-old legal principle of corroboration had been set aside.