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Juries

Volume 958: debated on Wednesday 15 November 1978

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39.

asked the Lord Advocate if it is his practice to screen juries for their opinions and records in cases of a political nature; and if he will make a statement on present procedures.

Persons being cited for jury service in Scotland are not screened for their opinions or past records by me or by anyone else. Objection to particular individuals being selected as jurors can be taken by the prosecution in open court. The defence has the same right. Under present procedure juries are balloted from a list prepared by the clerk of court of persons whose names are drawn from the general jury list of those in the locality qualified and liable to serve as jurors.

Will the Lord Advocate accept my thanks that he has not followed the reprehensible practice which the Attorney-General admitted recently in relation to the secrets trial at the Old Bailey, whereby prospective jurors were screened in advance for their opinions?

I do not think that it would be appropriate for me to comment on what my right hon. and learned Friend does in England. Indeed. I would not accept that the hon. Gentleman has put his practice correctly. However, that is a matter for him and not for me.

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept that one of the essentials of justice is speed, and that in the United States it can take up to two weeks to empanel a jury whereas under the Scottish system it can take only a few minutes which has many advantages which should not lightly be thrown away?

Will my right hon and learned Friend remove the need for further debate on this subject in Scotland by giving a categorical assurance that at least while his party is in power there will be no move towards allowing the political screening of potential jurors?

Quite frankly, in the light of the nature and traditions of the office of Lord Advocate, I can give that assurance probably for any party which would provide a Lord Advocate in this House.

Does the Lord Advocate accept that there is a powerful case for objections to a potential juror by either prosecution or defence being permitted only on cause shown?

I think the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that peremptory challenge should be limited—in other words, that it should be abolished—and that objections should be simply on cause shown. I do not agree that that is a good idea, and I think I am reflecting the hon. Gentleman's own view on this matter.

Well, whether or not I agree with the hon. Gentleman, in my view the present practice of having five peremptory challenges on each side —that is, for the prosecution and for each accused—is highly desirable, and I hope that it will continue.