Attempts by the Justice Secretary to ‘streamline’ the jury system might actually mean getting rid of juries in as many cases as possible .. as the Scottish justice system seeks to emulate those of banana republics as quickly as possible …
Published Date: 19 September 2008
By Michael Howie
JURIES could be scrapped for long-running and complex fraud and murder trials under reforms being considered by ministers.
Such cases would instead be overseen by a panel of judges, following the precedent set in the Lockerbie trial, where three judges convicted Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi of bombing Pan-Am flight 103.
A set of proposals and ideas for Scotland's jury system, published by the Scottish Government yesterday, includes cutting the number of people who sit on a jury from 15, and changing the list of occupations exempt from jury service.
The radical changes were also raised in a consultation document which outlined a clear proposal to raise the age limit for jurors from 65 to 70.
Kenny MacAskill, the justice secretary, said raising the current age limit would end a "clear discrimination" against older people. He said jury service lay at the core of the criminal justice system, but acknowledged the pressures on eligible jurors from long-running trials and the need to widen the pool of potential jury members.
He said: "On some of the more fundamental issues, such as jury size and occupational exemptions, we will take time to hear from a wide range of people, allowing us to reach decisions in light of robust evidence.
"However, as a first step we will raise the age limit for jury service from 65 to 70, recognising as we do the vast knowledge and life experience that senior citizens have to offer."
He also announced plans to reduce the exemption period for people who attend court but are not picked to sit on a jury from five years to two. The question of whether it is fair to expect people to give up a vast amount of time to sit on a jury was raised in 2004, when the gas supply company Transco was facing a six-month trial over an explosion that killed a family in Lanarkshire.
The consultation also suggests the use of "substitute" jurors to be drafted in when others fall sick.
Reducing jury size – which would lead to fewer people inconvenienced and lower costs – would be hugely controversial, as it could affect the number of acquittals.
Paul McBride, QC, said a "massive study" would be needed before any changes were made.
"We are the only country in the world where people are convicted by a simple majority. If you reduce the size of juries to, say, 12 and introduce a required majority vote of 10-2 – as is this case in England – this could result in more acquittals."
Ian Duguid, QC, the chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, said fewer jury trials would undermine a key pillar of the justice system. "I'm not sure that the interests of fairness can be reconciled with removing juries from trials," he said.