PLANS to axe the historic 15-person jury in Scottish criminal trials have been ditched by ministers, The Scotsman can reveal.
Kenny MacAskill, Cabinet Secretary for Justice, said that after extensive consultation, he had decided the only system of its kind in the world should be retained – and that Scotland had got it "uniquely right".
Mr MacAskill admitted he had been sceptical about the 15-person panel, amid criticism that such big juries could be unwieldy and it can be hard to find 15 suitable jurors for every trial.
But he told The Scotsman: "The matter of jury numbers was part of the review I launched last year and I was sceptical at that time about the fact Scotland was unique in the world in having 15 members. But as the information has come in, I'm persuaded that this may in fact be one of those examples where Scotland has got it uniquely right."
He added: "When you take into account that we don't have the expense in time and money of retrials because a simple 8-7 majority is sufficient, we have a pretty efficient system already."
The Scottish Government consultation on juries looked at such issues as the make-up of juries, age limits, remuneration and selection. Mr MacAskill has already indicated he would look favourably on raising the age limit from 65 to 70. That could add 200,000 names to the pool of prospective jurors.
The number of jury trials in Scotland has increased steadily in recent years, from 2,750 in 2005/6 to 3,234 in 2007/8. About 50,000 citizens each year are asked to sit on a jury.
In the consultation process, some advantages of 15-person juries were noted as being that people still have confidence in the system, larger juries lead to fairer verdicts, they are less likely to be influenced by prejudice, they allow for majority verdicts and are composed of a greater cross section of the public.
Against this were arguments that 15-person juries often lead to unwieldy discussions and that the juror pool is being stretched by the requirement of having so many jurors for each trial.
Scotland's best-known advocate, Donald Findlay QC, said: "I am pleased and I am surprised. It is unusual for me to complement a Scot Nat minister for doing the right thing rather than being driven by cost-cutting, which is what this would have been."
John Scott, who tabled a consultation submission against a reduction in the size of jurors on behalf of Scotland's solicitor advocates, said: "The system works as it is. In the vast majority of cases the juries get it right and there is a dynamic with 15 that we couldn't guarantee to be there if we tinker with it."
Defence lawyers were one of the groups to generally favour larger juries. A straw poll of advocates and solicitor advocates at the start of the consultation process found not a single voice in favour of reducing the size.
Ian Duguid QC, Chairman of the Faculty of Advocates Criminal Bar Association, summed up the general sceptical view: "There doesn't seem any reason to change it if it is not broken."
UNIQUE SYSTEM THAT RULES ON GUILT OR INNOCENCE
THE Scottish system is thought to have the largest number of jurors in the world.
Many jurisdictions have 12 jurors but Scotland has 15.
Curiously, there seems to be no clear explanation for the size of a Scottish jury. Professor Lindsay Farmer of Glasgow University said recently: "There isn't any evidence that there was some particularly Scottish reasoning in alighting on 15 as the jury number any more than there was in England for choosing 12 as jury trials evolved in the Middle Ages across Europe.
"Most of the justifications for the difference between the two jurisdictions … were developed as rationalisations during the period of Scottish legal nationalism in the mid- 19th century. But in reality they just happened." Neither is there thought to be any ancient numerological magic underpinning the constitution of a jury, nor modern actuarial analysis of the best number for an optimum collective decision.
At present a Scottish jury can convict or acquit on a simple majority. An accused can be sentenced to life on the basis of an 8-7 vote.