Plans to temporarily end trial by jury have been dropped from the Scottish Government’s emergency coronavirus legislation after they provoked “deep concern” in the legal community.
Constitution secretary Michael Russell told Holyrood that ministers are withdrawing that section of the Coronavirus Scotland Bill with a view to returning to emergency reforms of the justice system at a later date.
He said postponing the measures would “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”.
Russell said that he expected the Scottish Government to bring a “standalone Bill” back to the parliament on the next sitting day – believed to be April 21 – on how the justice system will function during the pandemic.
The emergency legislation, intended to be debated and passed in a day on Wednesday, originally proposed allowing judge-only trials for the most serious charges to “ensure that criminal justice systems can continue to operate during the coronavirus restrictions”.
The Coronavirus Scotland Bill also allows for the possible release of inmates if prisons are becoming overwhelmed by the virus, as well as protecting tenants from eviction for six months.
But human rights lawyer Aamer Anwar branded the parts of the legislation which would end trial by jury an “unacceptable attack on our justice system”, adding: “600-year jury trial before peers done away a week after lockdown.”
John Mulholland, president of the Law Society of Scotland, expressed “deep concern” at the proposal, calling it “one of the most fundamental changes to our justice system ever contemplated”.
The Faculty of Advocates’ Scottish Criminal Bar Association also opposed the plan.
The Scottish Liberal Democrats laid amendments to the Bill objecting to the proposal for trials without juries, while the Scottish Tories called jury trials “an important safeguard of human rights which we would be most reluctant to see removed”.
The Bill is slated to expire on September 30 this year, although MSPs have the option to extend the legislation for a further two six-month periods, should it be deemed necessary to do so to tackle the Covid-19 outbreak.