U-turn over move to suspend jury trials under COVID-19 emergency powers

Controversial plans to suspend jury trials in Scotland during the Coronavirus outbreak have been dropped by the Scottish Government after a backlash from lawyers and opposition politicians.

Michael Russell announced the u-turn at Holyrood today

Emergency powers being pushed through at Holyrood today included the prospect of judge-only trials amid concerns that social distancing was impossible for a jury of 15.

But Constitution Secretary Michael Russell announced that the Government would not press ahead with the measure on juries after senior lawyers warned it would be an attack on the centuries old principles at the heart of the country's justice system.

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Mr Russell told MSPs it had been withdrawn "in order to allow an intensive and wide-ranging discussion by all interested parties, including victims, whose voice has not yet been fully heard, about the right way to ensure that justice continues to be done in Scotland".Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf said a backlog of cases is already building up in the court system as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak but said ministers would work in a "spirit of compromise and a spirit of consensus".While he said the proposal to temporarily halt jury trials was "proportionate", he accepted it had "not secured the support of this chamber".Mr Yousaf said he will put forward an amendment to remove that section from the Bill and then have talks with Lord Advocate James Wolffe QC, as well as the legal profession, victims and others about how to ensure "justice is done and not delayed".The Justice Secretary added: "The solution needs to be in place this month so I am making a firm commitment to this chamber and wider Scotland that we will table emergency legislation for debate here on the next due sitting day, which is April 21."

Liberal Democrat MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton, who lodged amendments objecting to the plans, welcomed the u-turn.

"The Scottish Government's sharp u-turn on its plans to end jury trials is important," he said.

“People in Scotland have had jury trials for 800 years, through wars, disease and pestilence.

“When SNP ministers look at this again they need to remember that a shiver ran down people’s spines at the idea they wanted to go further than any government in the world to end our system of justice."

Law Society president John Mulholland welcomed the announcement, saying: "I am reassured that the Scottish Government has listened to the concerns raised by the Law Society on behalf of our members about the possibility of allowing trials to take place without a jury in the most serious of cases."We look forward to engaging positively with the Scottish Government and partners as they investigate practical ways to ensure that justice can continue to be carried out effectively during the outbreak."

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