THE Scottish Government has withdrawn plans to suspend jury trials in serious criminal cases following a huge backlash.

The move had been part of emergency legislation to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. 

Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf said new legislation will be put forward in three weeks' time, following consultation with the legal community and victims' organisations.

It follows an outcry from the legal profession and opposition politicians.

The Scottish Criminal Bar Association had labelled the plans "draconian". 

Ronnie Renucci QC, president of the SCBA, said: "Any changes, however temporary, should not erode important principles of our legal system which would have the effect of undermining or ignoring the citizen’s rights to justice.

"They should not at a stroke remove the fundamental principle of the right of those citizens charged with serious offences to a trial by a jury of their peers within a reasonable time.

“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."

The SCBA also called plans to extend statutory time limits on cases coming to court "wholly unnecessary" and cautioned against the relaxation of rules around hearsay evidence.

Nicola Sturgeon previously said the suspension of jury trials was necessary to ensure serious criminal trials did not halt entirely.

She said: “We would never have wanted to be in a position to pass legislation like this.

"We wouldn’t be doing it unless we thought it was necessary for the protection of the population.”

Elsewhere, the Scottish Government confirmed it will amend plans to extend the length of time given to public bodies to respond to Freedom of Information requests. 

Opposition politicians welcomed the U-turn.

Scottish Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser said the removal of jury trials would be a "retrograde" step and "hard to justify". 

He said: "There are other solutions here that I think need to be properly considered."

He suggested measures such as delaying jury trials, linking juries to the court by TV screens, or holding cases in larger venues to allow social distancing.

Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton said: "The Scottish Government's sharp U-turn on its plans to end jury trials is important. 

“People in Scotland have had jury trials for 800 years, through wars, disease and pestilence. 

“When SNP ministers look at this again they need to remember that a shiver ran down people’s spines at the idea they wanted to go further than any government in the world to end our system of justice.

"A pillar of our justice system must not be pushed to one side by the unilateral action of a minority government. 

"People's lives depend on the outcome of these trials and Scots have been able to present their evidence to a jury for almost 800 years.

“There are ways we can keep jurors safe and keep our justice system intact." 

Scottish ministers will return to Holyrood with new legislation relating to the courts on April 21.

More to follow

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