Scotland's controversial 'not proven' verdict set to be abolished

Scotland’s controversial not proven verdict is set to be abolished, Nicola Sturgeon has said.

The First Minister announced the “truly historic” move as she set out her legislative programme for the coming parliamentary year.

She said a new Criminal Justice Bill would also ensure the anonymity of complainers in sexual offence cases.

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In Scotland, unlike elsewhere in the UK, there is no automatic legal right to anonymity.

The High Court in EdinburghThe High Court in Edinburgh
The High Court in Edinburgh

Scotland’s distinctive not proven verdict has long been controversial, with jury research previously highlighting confusion about its meaning and effect.

There is cross-party support for its abolition.

A recent consultation found some 62 per cent of 200 respondents backed moving to a two-verdict system in criminal cases, with just 37 per cent favouring the status quo.

However, higher numbers of legal organisations (seven out of eight), those who have been a juror in a criminal trial (19 out of 30) and those who have been charged with a crime (five out of six) supported keeping the three verdicts currently available.

Speaking in Holyrood as her Programme for Government was published, Ms Sturgeon said: “We will introduce a Criminal Justice Bill.

“Amongst other measures, this Bill will provide for the abolition of the not proven verdict.

“If approved by Parliament, this will be a change of truly historic significance in Scotland, and one firmly intended to improve access to justice for victims of crime.

“This Bill will also deliver statutory protection of the anonymity of complainers in sexual offence cases.”

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Elsewhere, Ms Sturgeon said her Government would consult on draft laws to give effect to recommendations in a report by Baroness Helena Kennedy on tackling misogynistic behaviour.

She said a Misogyny and Criminal Justice Bill would be introduced later in the parliamentary term.

Legislation to improve the way in which complaints about the police are managed and investigated will also be introduced, as well as moves to improve the accountability and transparency of the legal complaints system.

Earlier this year, Scotland’s senior judges said the “vast majority” of their number now “take the view that the not proven verdict is inconsistent with the presumption of innocence and the purpose of the trial process”. However, scrapping it will prove controversial elsewhere in the legal world.

Rape Crisis Scotland has been campaigning to abolish the verdict since 2018, alongside a woman known as Miss M.

Chief executive Sandy Brindley said: “We are pleased to see the commitment to abolish the not proven verdict. Alongside Miss M, a rape survivor who successfully sued her rapist following a not proven verdict in the criminal courts, we have campaigned for the last four years to remove this verdict.

"It is used disproportionately in rape trials and we have serious concerns that it contributes to guilty men walking free.

"Research has shown that the not proven verdict is poorly understood by juries, who are given no explanation about what it means or how it is different from the not guilty verdict. It is an anomaly and it is time for it to go.

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"In Scotland, rape has the lowest conviction rate of any crime type, and urgent action is needed to address the significant barriers to justice facing rape survivors.

"Removing the not proven verdict, alongside other legal reform such as the introduction of specialist sexual offence courts, could make a real and lasting difference.”