Almost half of MSPs refuse to back controversial justice reforms at Holyrood

Sixty-two MSPs abstained in a vote on the general principles of the Victims, Witnesses and Justice Reform (Scotland) Bill.

Almost half of MSPs at Holyrood have refused to back controversial justice reforms brought forward by the Scottish Government.

While Justice Secretary Angela Constance said the “time for change is now”, when it came to voting on the general principles of the Victims. Witnesses and Justice Reform (Scotland) Bill 62 MSPs abstained.

However the legislation passed its first hurdle at Holyrood, as 60 MSPs voted for it, with none voting against.

But a number of SNP MSPs, including former leadership candidate Kate Forbes, Annabelle Ewing, Fergus Ewing, Christine Grahame, Ivan McKee and Michelle Thomson, joined Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrats by abstaining.

It came after a debate in which opposition MSPs said the legislation, which would scrap Scotland’s unique not proven verdict but could also bring in judge-only trials for those accused of rape, was “experimental, perhaps even dangerously so”.

While Ms Constance said action was needed to tackle low conviction rates for rape and other sexual offences, Scottish Conservative justice spokesman Russell Findlay criticised plans to pilot juryless trials for those accused of rape and attempted rape.

“The Government appears to be experimenting in much the same way as a mad scientist at work,” he said.

He told MSPs a move to put those accused of rape and attempted rape on trial before a judge alone would be a “departure from the long-established right of a person accused of serious crime to trial by a jury of their peers”.

Describing juries as “the cornerstone of the justice system” Mr Findlay said: “There is insufficient evidence to justify what would amount to an experiment with people’s lives.”

He also said Scottish ministers “cannot wish away” threats from lawyers to boycott such a scheme.

Labour’s Pauline McNeill said her party too was opposed to the plans for juryless rape trials.

Meanwhile, with the legislation containing a number of proposed reforms, ranging from the introduction of a victims’ commissioner to a legal right to lifelong anonymity for victims of sexual offences, both Labour and the Tories said the Bill was “frankly far too big”.

Ms McNeill said: “Scottish Labour supports the Government’s aims that it is time for change, but we believe that they need a comprehensive plan to look separately at each reform contained within the Bill.

“We believe there is too much substantial reform in one Bill.”

However Ms Constance said “transformational change” was needed in Scotland’s justice system.

She told MSPs: “I believe the case for change is clear, I believe the time for change is now.

“It is incumbent on us to work together to deliver the justice system that our society needs and deserves.”

On plans to end the requirement for juries for rape and attempted rape trials, she said the pilot would be focused on cases with just one alleged offence and one accused person.

In such cases she said the average five-year conviction rate was just 24%.

While she said she would reflect on the “differences of opinion”, Ms Constance said: “It is clear our justice system needs to change the way in which it responds to serious sexual offending.

“As legislators it is our role to determine the legal frameworks that ought to be in place, and no part of our justice system should be exempt from review and if necessary reconsideration.”

The Justice Secretary also told MSPs a pilot of juryless trials would “provide much-needed evidence to let us have a properly informed debate on an enduring issue that undermines confidence in our criminal justice system”.

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