Nicola Sturgeon has admitted that her time since leaving office has not unfolded as she hoped, as she conceded that controversial plans for juryless rape trials may not work.
Scotland’s former first minister, who stood down in February, said she could table an amendment on the Justice Reform Bill signed off by her own cabinet as she called for both sides of the debate to “take a breath”.
Writing for The Guardian, Ms Sturgeon, 52, noted that judges could also hold the perceived prejudices that campaigners say have affected juries’ decisions.
Since Ms Sturgeon’s shock resignation, the Scottish National Party (SNP) has become increasingly fractured amid a police investigation into its finances that saw her husband Peter Murrell arrested.
Mr Murrell, the former chief executive of the SNP, has been released without charge but detectives are continuing to investigate allegations that the party misused £600,000 of donations.
Backlash over juryless rape trial plans
Holyrood has been rife with speculation that Ms Sturgeon could be questioned by detectives over the alleged fraud and although she did not discuss the case in her column, she did address the furious backlash over plans for a pilot of juryless rape trials.
Some feminist campaigners have said juryless trials are needed because of widespread belief in sexist “rape myths” among the public, which cause them to wrongly acquit predators.
However, criminal lawyers have said there is nothing wrong with the jury system and that plans designed to artificially drive up conviction rates risked creating major miscarriages of justice. Numerous bar associations have pledged to boycott any pilot.
Ms Sturgeon admitted that her time since leaving office had not gone as planned and while critics have repeatedly accused her of being divisive, she expressed her frustration at being unable to “broker the common ground necessary to advance difficult or controversial policy changes”.
‘It has given me a different perspective’
“It is now almost two months since I left office and while that period hasn’t unfolded exactly as I anticipated – for reasons I won’t go into here – it has given me a different perspective,” she wrote. “On the issue of polarisation, I think that, if anything, I underestimated the depth of the problem.”
Ms Sturgeon, who remains an MSP, went on to say that it was “depressingly striking” how people adopted “immovable positions” and cited the backlash to her controversial plans for judge-only rape trials. She admitted that the arguments for and against are finely balanced.
“Before the ink was even dry on the draft legislation and without a single word of debate or evidence being heard in parliament, let alone the shape of the final proposal being known, fixed positions had been staked.
“I am not expecting, or even trying, to change minds with this article – but I am expressing a hope that it is not too late for us all to take a breath. This issue matters. It should be beyond party politics. And it should not be beyond our body politic to approach it differently.”
Ms Sturgeon insisted it was not “a politician-inspired plan to undermine the justice system” and had been recommended by Lady Dorrian, Scotland’s second most senior judge.
‘A strong case for change’
She cited Scotland’s poor conviction rate with just 152 prosecutions out of the 2,176 rapes or attempted rapes reported to police in 2020-21 and only 78 convictions, which she said could partly be blamed on “rape myths”.
“It is uncomfortable to acknowledge that such views still exist in a modern society, but they do. And if they are still prevalent in society, is it credible to think they will never be present in the jury room? There is a strong case for change.”
However in a surprising admission, Ms Sturgeon then noted that the “counter-arguments are far from frivolous” and judges could also hold prejudiced views.
“It has long been accepted that for the most serious crimes, the sacrosanct right to a fair trial means trial before a jury of peers. Judges may be just as vulnerable to “rape myths” as juries – and as there is only one of them rather than a whole panel of jurors with mixed views, the impact may be greater.”
Ms Sturgeon admitted she may even table amendments to the Bill that her own cabinet signed off and said she was “open to discussion on all aspects” of the legislation.