Proposals to reform criminal law could “seriously undermine the integrity” of the justice system, the Law Society of Scotland has warned.
Measures in the Victims, Witnesses and Justice Reform (Scotland) Bill from the Scottish Parliament’s Criminal Justice Committee would potentially reduce the size of juries and scrap the “not proven” verdict.
The Bill aims to improve the experiences of victims and witnesses within the justice system, particularly focusing on sex crimes.
Justice Secretary Angela Constance previously said it was “among the most significant since devolution” and was designed to be less traumatic for victims.
Some aspects have been met with widespread condemnation from lawyers, including the possibility of juryless trials for rape cases.
The proposals would reduce the number of jurors to 12, rather than 15, in line with common law – however, unlike the legal system elsewhere in the UK and in the US do not include the requirement for a unanimous verdict.
The Law Society of Scotland said if the Bill was to go ahead with 12 jurors, it should be amended to introduce the requirement for a unanimous verdict.
In a response to a call for evidence, it lobbied to keep the “not proven” verdict, which rape charities want to be scrapped, but backed automatic anonymity for victims of sex offences.
The Bill also proposed a new sexual offences court, a new victims and witnesses commissioner and a pilot of rape trials conducted by a single judge.
The Law Society of Scotland has warned that key parts of the Bill could seriously “undermine the integrity of Scotland’s criminal justice system”.
Sheila Webster, president of the Law Society of Scotland, said: “Small changes to how our criminal justice system operates can have large consequences, so we have significant concerns about the number of interlinked changes contained in this Bill.
“The concern and alarm of legal practitioners at the potential introduction of juryless trials for rape cases has been well documented.
“Trial by jury for serious crimes is a basic right and cornerstone of our justice system.
“Our longstanding opposition to removing the ‘not proven’ verdict is well known but we’re also concerned about unanticipated consequences from other planned changes, including cutting the size of Scottish juries from 15 to 12 members.
“The fundamental principle that guilt must be proven beyond reasonable doubt must be central to these reforms.
“If jury size is cut and ‘not proven’ scrapped, we believe Scotland should move to a requirement for unanimity among jurors for a conviction, as is the case in comparable jurisdictions.
“It’s important to note that we do support significant parts of the Bill including around the anonymity of complainers in sexual offence cases, the establishment of a new commissioner and a focus on trauma-informed practice.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We are glad to see support for many parts of our Bill which places witnesses and victims of crime, particularly victims of sexual crimes, at the heart of the justice system, while safeguarding the operation of the system and protecting the rights of the accused, ensuring the public retain confidence in our justice system.
“The Bill is informed by the work of the Victims Taskforce and Lady Dorrian’s report on improving the management of sexual offences, and is the product of wide consultation with victims and justice partners.”