Aberdeen lawyers join boycott of juryless rape trials pilot

They join lawyers in Glasgow and Edinburgh in boycotting the controversial pilot.

Aberdeen lawyers join boycott of juryless rape trials pilot iStock

Lawyers in Aberdeen have announced they will boycott Scottish Government plans to hold a pilot of juryless rape trials.

Members of the Aberdeen Bar Association have revealed they will refuse to take part in the pilot, which was proposed as part of a new justice reform bill.

It comes after members of the Glasgow Bar Association (GBA) and the Edinburgh Bar Association (EBA) voted overwhelmingly against the proposals in the Victims, Witnesses and Justice Reform (Scotland) Bill.

The plans were recommended by senior judge Lady Dorrian who undertook a review of the justice system which informed the legislation before Holyrood.

Aberdeen Bar Association vice president Ian Woodward-Nutt accused the Scottish Government of attempting to “engineer” higher conviction rates in such cases.

He said: “It is essential to understand that in many rape cases it is hard for the prosecution to prove a case beyond reasonable doubt.

“That is not due to some deficiency in the system that requires to be rectified, rather it is the inevitable consequence of the background circumstances in cases of this type.

“For the government to consider it appropriate to attempt to engineer higher conviction rates and for them to try to do so by removing the essential safeguard of trial before a jury is deeply troubling.

“That is why defence lawyers in Aberdeen and the north-east of Scotland have declared they will not accept instructions in cases proceeding by way of this experimental scheme.”

The change was proposed by another senior judge, Lady Dorrian, in a review that informed the Victims, Witnesses and Justice Reform (Scotland) Bill, with Justice Secretary Angela Constance claiming low conviction rates for rape and attempted rape were hampered by the “prevalence of preconceptions”.

In the most recent figures, conviction rates for rape and attempted rape were 51%, compared with 91% for all other crimes.

Responding to the news of the boycott, Ms Constance said: “It is disappointing that some criminal defence lawyers oppose a recommendation of a review carried out by Lady Dorrian, Scotland’s second most senior judge, to improve how the justice system treats rape victims by piloting judge-only rape trials.

“There is overwhelming evidence that jurors are subject to preconceptions about rape that can impact the verdicts they reach – which is not the case in other serious crime trials.

“Over 80% of criminal trials in Scotland are already conducted without a jury.

“We have worked closely with the legal sector and will continue to do so during the development and evaluation of the pilot.”

The plans have come under fire from some senior lawyers in Scotland.

Lord Uist, a former Senator of the College of Justice before his retirement in 2021, claimed the proposals could impinge on the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) and described the move as “constitutionally repugnant”.

Writing in Scottish Legal News earlier this week, he said: “The work of the pilot courts is to be subject to review by the executive and a report of that review is to be submitted to the legislature.

“This amounts to politicians treating the courts as forensic laboratories in which to experiment with their policies.”

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