Aberdeen lawyers join boycott of juryless rape trials pilot and brand plans ‘a danger’

Lawyers in Aberdeen will join a boycott of plans to pilot juryless rape trials in Scotland.

Aberdeen Bar Association branded the proposals “a danger” and accused the Scottish government of “political meddling”.

Lawyers in Glasgow and Edinburgh have already confirmed they will refuse to take part in the pilot, which was proposed last month as part of a new justice reform bill.

Former senior judge Lord Uist previously described the plans for single judge rape trials as “constitutionally repugnant” and accused ministers of “treating the courts as forensic laboratories in which to experiment with their policies”.

Aberdeen Bar Association vice president Ian Woodward-Nutt told Sky News: “It is a danger. This level of political meddling is something that we should all be deeply concerned about.”

The Victims, Witnesses and Justice Reform (Scotland) Bill aims to address a number of issues around serious sexual offences, including a bid to scrap the controversial “not proven” verdict.

Mr Woodward-Nutt said using juries in the most serious cases means the decision-makers are “protected from public scrutiny and pressure relative to the important decision they have to make”.

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Mr Woodward-Nutt said another benefit is the “breadth of real-life experience” juries bring to their decision-making, which “many would argue you just don’t get when you have a single judge who may come from a very particular type of background”.

Aberdeen Bar Association believes the experimental move will lead to the individual judge having to deal with increased public scrutiny.

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

Mr Woodward-Nutt noted that the plans were being brought in to increase the number of convictions.

He said: “That’s an astonishing starting point for any programme of this type.”

Mr Woodward-Nutt said the lower conviction rate is not “down to some defect in the system”.

He explained that in rape cases it’s rare to have an independent witness and it’s normally the account of a complainer against an accused.

Mr Woodward-Nutt said: “And it’s that background in rape cases that means it’s almost inevitable that it’s very difficult for the prosecution to prove a case beyond reasonable doubt.”

In response to the boycott, Justice Secretary Angela 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.”