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Scotland’s “Sinister” Covid19 Response – Suspend Trial by Jury Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill removes and undermines hard-won legal protections

The new legal powers sought by Scotland’s devolved law-makers undermine ideas of justice in place for hundreds of years, according to the Scottish Criminal Bar Association.

The new Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill grants sweeping powers to Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish Parliament, and makes dramatic changes to the criminal justice system.

Among a long list of changes, the Bill seeks to:

  • Replace trial by jury with bench trials, presided over by a Judge or local Sheriff
  • Remove the maximum time of 140 days an accused can await trial
  • Relax hearsay evidence law, allowing judges to hear pre-recorded witness statements that are not open to cross-examination

The new rules, unlike similar Diplock rules used in Northern Ireland in 1970s, do not guarantee an automatic right of appeal.

The Scottish Judiciary claims these powers are vital to protecting people from potential coronavirus infections, whilst following the European Convention on Human Rights requirements for an “effective justice system”.

But the Scottish Criminal Bar Association strongly disagrees.

In a statement on their website, SCBA President Ronnie Renucci QC wrote:

The SCBA believes that these draconian measures seeking to bring about seismic changes to our system of justice are premature, disproportionate and ill-advised. They are at best a knee-jerk reaction to an as yet unquantified problem instigated by panic or at worst, something far more sinister.

A long-form response, going point-by-point through the bill is available here.

Will other countries follow Scotland’s example? It remains to be seen. We will no doubt be discussing this unsettling development more in the future.