I suppose I should be alarmed by the Scottish government’s proposal to abolish juries in rape trials, to increase conviction rates. To be truthful, nothing really surprises me anymore. Particularly when it comes to the administration of justice. And don’t think that it is just talk. The Scottish government has already published its Victims Witnesses and Justice Reform (Scotland) Bill, which includes enabling provisions for the setting up of a non-jury sexual offences court.
Behind the proposal is the patronising assumption that the general public – that is you and me – are just too dumb to be trusted to determine issues of guilt or innocence in a criminal trial. So, it has to be left to the professionals. For government appointees to make those decisions on our behalf. But if we were really that dumb, juries would not convict anyone, particularly given the high burden of proof in a criminal trial and the fact that so much evidence is never even presented to the jury, because we cannot be trusted with it. But we know from the convictions of Jeffrey Archer, Rolf Harris and Max Clifford, amongst others, that modern juries are no longer overawed by celebrity, as they once were, when Ken Dodd was acquitted for tax evasion back in the 1970s. And if juries cannot be trusted in a rape trial, couldn’t the same argument be put forward to remove juries from public order prosecutions, just in case they sympathise with environmental protesters?
We saw during the covid lockdowns, how easy it was for the State to persuade us to give up basic human rights, such as visiting a sick relative. And all on the back of questionable science in which any dissenting opinion was quickly shut down as being dangerous. Scotland was often at the forefront of increased covid restrictions, which were then quickly adopted by a UK government which did not wish to appear ‘out of step’. So how long would it be that any removal of juries in Scottish courts will spread to England and Wales, particularly if conviction rates are seen to increase?
We have seen from Trump’s appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court, how politicians can influence judicial appointments to achieve a bench which is sympathetic to government policy. We have also seen how the UK has used legislation designed to combat jury intimidation, to withdraw the right to jury trial from army veterans accused in relation to civilian deaths in the 1970s. Was it that our politicians just didn’t wish to risk an acquittal, against the backdrop of the Good Friday Agreement? I’m not saying don’t prosecute army veterans. But at least give them a fair trial.
Within our own professions, we have seen how regulatory bodies have reduced the burden of proof to make it easier to get a conviction and destroy a professional career against the suspicion that someone has acted inappropriately, even when the evidence itself is open to doubt.
As someone who has sat on a jury, I can say categorically, that the reason why prosecutions fail is not because of public involvement in the process, but because of the inept and half-hearted way many cases are prosecuted. In my own case, which involved an attempted robbery, we had to acquit the defendant because a key corroborative witness was not presented to us to back up the words of the complainant. The excuse given was that the corroborative witness had moved to Australia. So what? Couldn’t someone have bought him a return ticket? Or allowed him to give evidence via video link?
My solution to improve general conviction rates would be to increase public involvement in the criminal justice system by replacing the CPS by American-style district attorneys, who are directly accountable to the public whom they serve. Let’s get back to basic principles of ‘right and wrong’. It can’t be any worse than what we have at the momentRead more: Juries in Rape Trials