On the Saturday 27 May 2023, between 3.00pm and 5.00pm, Glasgow based Aye Write book festival will be hosting an interactive mock courtroom experience, where its audience will play the role of jurors for the day.
The audience will get to experience a trial and deliberate in a small jury to reach a verdict. In addition to this, audience members will be able to ask questions to, and hear a live discussion from, a panel of experts, Stuart Johnston (a faction crime writer), Tony Lenehan KC (president of the Scottish Criminal Bar Association), Dr Hayley Ness (an expert in forensic cognition), and Dr Lee Curley (an expert in juror decision-making, with a particular interest in the not proven verdict). There will also be a live reading from Stuart Johnston from one of his short stories.
This is an event not to be missed and the focus on this event will be experiential and educational, with the aim being to educate members of the public on the Scottish jury system.
In 2020-22, during the global pandemic, Dr Lee Curley (alongside other academics Dr James Munro, Dr Lara Frumkin and Dr Jim Turner) hoped to investigate the not proven verdict and its use in a modern Scottish courtroom. For those of you who do not know, Scotland, currently, has three verdicts available to jurors and judges: guilty, not guilty, and not proven. The latter of these being unique to Scotland. The not proven verdict is an acquittal verdict, meaning that accused individuals who receive the verdict face no legal consequences and are free to go. However, unlike the not guilty verdict, the not proven verdict had not been legally defined. The three verdict-system has been controversial almost from its inception (in the early 18th century), with Sir Walter Scott critiquing the verdict, due to its perceived illegitimacy in the courtroom.
Those for the not proven verdict propose that it directs jurors to their true role of determining whether the prosecution's case has, or has not, been ‘proven’. Abolitionists instead suggest that the Scottish jury system should become more similar to England and Wales, and present jurors with guilty and not guilty verdicts only. Much of the criticism surrounding the not proven verdict comes from activists, campaigners and support groups, such as rape crisis Scotland, who propose that the not proven verdict plays a causal role in the low conviction rates for rape and attempted rape in Scotland. The debate on whether or not the not proven verdict should be removed or not has been debated by legal professionals, politicians and academics for a long period of time. However, this debate has mostly been opinion based until recently, as only a limited amount of research had been conducted on the topic. Due to this, Dr Curley and other academics have created a programme of research focussing on the not proven verdict.
In one study conducted by Curley et al., (2021) they surveyed legal professionals about the not proven verdict. Here they asked legal professionals (as they have the most experience of the verdict) about their views on abolishment and if/how they would reform the verdict system in Scotland. Interestingly, 60% of legal professionals suggested that the not proven verdict should not be abolished Curley et al., (2021). Likewise, the majority stated that they would prefer a proven and not proven verdict system when compared to a guilty and not guilty system (currently used in England and Wales) or a guilty, not guilty and not proven system (currently used in Scotland).
This preference for a proven and not proven verdict system originates due to Scotland in the 1700s having a verdict system where proven and not proven were used as special verdicts: For example, Curley et al., (2022) writes:
'Before the late 17th century, Scottish juries could indicate their belief in the accused's guilt or innocence, although there was a lack of consistency in the wording (Barbato, 2004; Walker, 1988). However, in the late 17th century, juries were stripped of their ability to give general verdicts of guilty and not guilty, due to cases of refusal to convict those charged under laws considered to be oppressive (Barbato, 2004; Curley, Murray, et al., 2021). At this time, Scottish juries could only give verdicts of proven and not proven in relation to specific factual allegations (equivalent to modern-day criminal charges) as part of an indictment (Barbato, 2004; Walker, 1988). Judges then used these special verdicts to rule on the overall innocence or guilt of an accused individual (Smith & MacDonald, 1958). Juries in Scotland were given back the ability to return general verdicts (i.e., guilty and not guilty) in the first half of the 18th century. However, the not proven verdict was retained, thus creating the current three-verdict Scottish system.'
Due to this preference from legal professionals, a second study was created and conducted, where Curley et al., (2022) conducted a mock-trial simulation and compared the effect that different verdict systems (guilty/not guilty; guilty/not guilty/not proven; proven/not proven) had on conviction rates. Here, 227 participants (who were representative of the Scottish electorate) watched a mock, murder trial through a video format (which lasted 53 minutes) and then gave a verdict (which was dependent on the verdict system they were randomly placed).
Interestingly, the researchers found that the guilty and not guilty verdict system led to significantly higher convictions when compared to the guilty, not guilty and not proven verdict system and the proven and not proven verdict system (Curley et al., 2021). This research also found that our mock jurors did not know much about the Scottish jury system, with the majority of the sample not knowing which verdicts are available in the Scottish jury system and how many jurors sit on a Scottish jury (correct answer is 15, but the modal response was 12). This suggested that our mock jurors had been influenced by Anglo-American legal drama’s which had skewed their perception of a courtroom, meaning they did not know much of their own legal jurisdiction. Due to this, researchers at The Open University are now creating resources (such as a jury hub resource) and producing events such as the 'Conviction or Acquittal: You Decide' event to teach prospective jurors about the law, their jurisdiction and psychological biases that may impact their decision-making. Furthermore, this event aims to give members of the public a real-life experience of what its like to be a real juror and provide them with expert opinion and knowledge from our panel.
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