SCOTTISH trials may have to take place with fewer jurors to help clear a looming backlog of serious cases caused by the coronavirus lockdown.

A group of legal experts is to examine cutting the number of jurors below 15 to cope with social distancing measures in court.

All new jury trials in sheriff courts and the High Court are currently suspended, and justice secretary Humza Yousaf has warned a “very significant” backlog is now building up.

Mr Yousaf last month suggested smaller juries - the number was cut from 15 jurors to seven during World War II - and greater powers for sheriffs could be the answer.

He also floated the idea of solemn, or serious, trials taking place without any jury, but ditched it after a backlash from MSPs and the legal profession.

Led by Lord Justice Clerk Lady Dorrian, Scotland’s second most senior judge, the Working Group on Restarting Solemn Trials will now consider how jury size, better use of court space and new technology can be used to alleviate the problem.

It will also consider what changes to the law may be needed to introduce the reforms.

Lady Dorrian said: “The courts have been working extremely hard to deliver justice in the current challenging circumstances.

"The use of remote technology, for example, is progressing to cover as many types of case as is technically possible across a wide range of criminal and civil business.

“This working group recognises the importance to the accused, to witnesses, and to their families, of continuing that progress to consider serious criminal cases.

"The particular challenges of conducting a jury trial, while also following public health guidelines to protect those engaged in the hearing, is a difficult balance to meet.”

The group includes other judges and lawyers, prosecutors, members of the Scottish Court Service and Sandy Brindley, chief executive of Rape Crisis Scotland.

It will also liaise closely with Police Scotland, the Scottish Prison Service, Victim Support Scotland, and Scottish Women's Aid.

Group member Ronnie Renucci, QC, president of the Scottish Criminal Bar Association, part of the Faculty of Advocates, said: "These are indeed challenging times and the Faculty recognises that, notwithstanding the efforts already made by the courts, further work is required to identify and put in place suitable practical measures that will allow jury trials to resume in Scotland.

"The Faculty does not take lightly its important role in the trial process and is determined to do what it can to assist in the safe and speedy resumption of this fundamental part of our criminal justice system."

Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP Liam McArthur said: “Jury trials are a pillar of Scotland’s justice system, and have been for 800 years. The Scottish Government’s original plan to abolish them for the duration of coronavirus was poorly thought through.

"The U-turn that followed the Scottish Liberal Democrats' intervention meant many in the legal sector could breathe a sigh of relief. 

“Socially-distanced jury trials are set to restart in England and Wales from next week.

"We have consistently put forward options to allow this to happen in Scotland too and I hope that these can now be part of the solution, keeping people safe while enabling justice to continue."