Saturday 20 May 2023

Sheer Brass Neck?

I am reproducing Iain Macwhirter in full here, not only because this is a very good article, but also to see whether doing so put me, “not a proper journalist”, in contempt of court for the jigsaw identification that I had put in bold: 

Nicola Sturgeon’s sheer brass neck never fails to amaze. A politician whose party is under police investigation, and whose husband has recently been arrested, is hardly best placed to start talking about scrapping juries in criminal trials. It’s a bit like Boris Johnson, at the height of partygate, speculating about the breaking up of the Metropolitan Police.

Sturgeon’s first venture into policy advice since her resignation came in a column in the Guardian supporting First Minister Humza Yousaf’s proposed Victims, Witnesses and Justice Reform (Scotland) Bill. This bill, which she sponsored before she resigned in February, calls for a trial of judge-only specialist courts for sexual offences.

The right to trial by jury has been the cornerstone of the Scottish justice system for centuries and the bill has been bitterly opposed by the legal profession. Over 500 solicitors from bar associations across Scotland have threatened to boycott the experiment on the grounds that it is based on the premise that rape victims are not getting a fair trial. The former Supreme Court judge, Lord Hope, has criticised the legislation as a threat to judicial independence. Frances McMenamin, one of Scotland’s most senior female KCs, says that removing ‘democratic participation’ would affect not only accused persons but ‘the rights of every citizen in Scotland’.

Politicians may be under pressure from lobby groups to have more men jailed for these terrible crimes, but that is scarcely a justification for abandoning the presumption of innocence.

Sturgeon claims that people who serve on juries are steeped in ‘rape myths’. That jurors often believe that women who are ‘dressed a particular way, or had been drinking, or in a relationship with her alleged attacker, must be at least partly to blame’. She gives no evidence for this slur on the integrity of citizens who sit on juries. Jurors in Scottish rape trials are given guidance by the judge and are provided with a manual on how to assess evidence.

Her Guardian article also asserts that the conviction rate of 51 per cent is too low. Rape prosecutions are inherently difficult because they often involve ‘he said/she said’ testimonies from people whose memories may be clouded by drink or drugs. Without corroboration, it is difficult to establish guilt beyond reasonable doubt. Politicians may be under pressure from lobby groups like Rape Crisis Scotland to have more men jailed for these terrible crimes, but that is scarcely a justification for abandoning the presumption of innocence.

The bill, which also abolishes the ‘not proven’ verdict and gives lifetime immunity to complainants in sexual offences cases, was inspired by a report in 2021 from the senior Scottish judge Lady Dorrian. She presided over the trial in 2020 of Nicola Sturgeon’s bête noir Alex Salmond for sexual assault and attempted rape. This landmark case forms the inevitable backdrop to this radical reform.

A jury of eight women and five men acquitted Salmond of all 13 charges in March 2020. In the subsequent Holyrood inquiry, Ms Sturgeon made clear she did not accept that the women who had accused him had been lying or had been misguided. She said that she felt ‘physically sick’ when she was informed of the allegations against her predecessor. She also condemned Salmond for his ‘deeply inappropriate behaviour’ adding that ‘as First Minister, I refused to follow the age-old pattern of allowing a powerful man to use his status and connection to get what he wants’.

Last month it emerged that the Crown Office has launched a perjury inquiry into what was said at the trial after representations from Salmond’s legal team. His accusers were senior figures in both the Scottish National party and her government. Nicola Sturgeon cannot therefore claim to be a disiniterested observer in the move to hold trials of judge-only trials for sexual offences. Indeed, you could argue that she should recuse herself: she has a direct and very personal interest.

But now of course Sturgeon is a mere backbench MSP, albeit an influential one. She is clearly not allowing her present legal difficulties to silence her. Ms Sturgeon’s arrest over the ‘missing’ £600,000 in donations has been expected for weeks. She was one of the three signatories to the problematic 2021 SNP accounts, along with her husband, SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, and the party treasurer Colin Beattie, both of whom have already been arrested and released without charge pending further investigation.

Yesterday, it was reported that that Operation Branchform, which involved the erection of a sizeable forensics tent outside the former First Minister’s Uddingstone home, may have been delayed by the Crown Office until after the SNP leadership election in April.

Of further interest is the fact that the prosecution service in Scotland is headed by a political appointee: the Lord Advocate, Dorothy Bain KC. Labour’s deputy Scottish leader, Jackie Baillie, has claimed there could be a ‘conflict of interest’. Ms Bain, who was appointed by Nicola Sturgeon, has also endorsed the trial of jury-less trials. It doesn’t take Inspector John Rebus to detect something here that may not look entirely savoury.

Again I say that it is time for one of Alba’s two MPs to name the conspirators against Salmond under parliamentary privilege.


  1. Any news on that naming under parliamentary privilege?