Smaller juries during Covid-19 could increase risk of mistrials

Proposals to resume trials with smaller juries in place during the coronavirus pandemic lead to a spike in mistrials and “devastating” consequences for victims, according to a charity dedicated to helping those affected by crime.

Jury trials have been suspended since the start of lockdown.

Victim Support Scotland warned that the backlog in the criminal justice system brought about by the contagion was already having a major detrimental impact on those who have suffered due to serious crime.

Holyrood’s justice committee has been told that it is hoped trials could resume as early as the summer, but it is anticipated the backlog of trials could run to as many as 3,000 come spring 2021, with social distancing restrictions continuing to limit the work of courts.

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Eric McQueen, chief executive of the Scottish Courts and Tribunals service, said it was considering various measures, including the use of pre-recorded evidence and smaller juries, so that more cases can be heard.

But Kate Wallace, Victim Support Scotland’s chief executive, has now written to the committee to express misgivings over the latter suggestion.

In her letter to MSPs, she said: “I am deeply concerned that this increases the risk of mistrial.

“I would press upon the members of the committee to ensure that decisions on the resumption of jury trials are made on the basis that an effective jury system is in place, which avoids the risk of cases collapsing and complainers of sexual violence requiring to give evidence again.”

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Ms Wallace pointed out that going forward, if one juror tested positive for Covid-19, it may well result in the collapse of a trial.

“If one juror is tested positive or acquires symptoms it is likely that all who have been in contact with that juror will have to isolate,” she explained.

“This may well mean that any time a juror tests positive the whole case is abandoned. The more people involved with the process the greater this risk becomes. It is in the best interests of victims that this risk of collapse be identified as minimal before a case may proceed.”

Victim Support Scotland said there has been a 400 per cent increase in the number of safeguarding reports coming through its services, where victims and witnesses supported by the charity have talked about suicidal thoughts.

Ms Wallace added: “In some instances, we have heard that people have become distressed due to early release of prisoners. Feelings of isolation are compounding an already difficult situation for some victims resulting in self-harm.”

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