Legal system ‘robust’ enough to handle pressure of Alex Salmond case

Alex Salmond has been charged with a total of 14 offences, including two counts of attempted rape and nine of sexual assault. Picture: PA
Alex Salmond has been charged with a total of 14 offences, including two counts of attempted rape and nine of sexual assault. Picture: PA
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Lawyers have said Scotland’s legal system will be “robust” enough to ensure Alex Salmond gets a fair trial.

The former First Minister has been charged with a total of 14 offences, including two counts of attempted rape and nine of sexual assault, pledging to defend himself to the “utmost” and stating that he is “innocent of any criminality”.

No date has been set for the next hearing, but it is expected that a jury trial will take place later this year.

Concerns have been raised that Mr Salmond’s high-profile political career, including leading the SNP during the 2014 independence referendum, will make it more difficult to find jurors without prior bias.

While some countries, including the United States, use the system of voir dire – allowing lawyers and the judge to question individual jurors ahead of a trial – Scotland does not.

Niall McCluskey QC said the question posed of jurors before trials about their ability to sit impartially might have to be explored “more rigorously” in Salmond’s case.

But he said there was no reason why the composition of the jury or the amount of pre-trial media coverage would undermine a fair trial.

“Yes, there will be an intense amount of media coverage about this particular case and he’s very famous, but I can’t conceivably see a court saying he couldn’t have a fair trial just because he’s famous and there’s going to be a lot of publicity,” he said. “Juries take an oath to try a case according to the evidence and they will be directed in that regard at the end of the trial.

“They will be required to proceed on the evidence and the evidence alone.

“We’ve had the Tommy Sheridan case and other notorious cases.

“The system is robust enough, but extra care will be required both at the start of the trial to root out jurors who might not properly be able to say they’re impartial and through the judge giving very strong direction to the jury at the end.”

When former Rangers owner Craig Whyte stood trial on fraud charges in 2017, concerns were raised by his defence team that he may not get a fair hearing from some members of the jury. Mr Whyte was acquitted following the seven-week trial.

Thomas Ross QC, a former president of the Scottish Bar Association, said: “In the Craig Whyte case, Donald Findlay suggested that there might be some jury vetting, but the judge didn’t do it.

“They might say to the jurors that if you have strong feelings about [Salmond] or his politics, then it might be something that would make you less impartial.

“But some judges might take the view that if you do that, you’ll never get a trial underway. Everybody in Scotland, by now, has a reasonably strong view of independence. If social media is anything to go by, there’s not many neutrals on the subject.”

Dr Andrew Tickell, a lecturer in law at Glasgow Caledonian University, said: “There will be very specific instructions given to the jury about discarding things they see on social media and all the rest it.

“When you are dealing with someone who is a high-profile public figure, it’s likely you will be dealing with people who have strong views about him. It’s about whether you can try the issues fairly on the evidence.”