The Scottish government has dropped plans to hold more trials without juries during the coronavirus lockdown.
Ministers proposed having more trials decided solely by judges during the pandemic, with social distancing rules meaning juries cannot assemble.
However after some lawyers and politicians voiced opposition, the move was dropped from emergency legislation.
Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf said more legislation will be tabled later in April to settle the issue.
MSPs are set to push through the remainder of the emergency powers in a single day of debate at Holyrood.
The Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill sets out new rules to prevent tenants from being evicted and to keep the judicial system running during the lockdown.
Constitution Secretary Mike Russell said the “exceptional powers” would be used “exceptionally carefully”.
The bill is due to pass through the full legislative process at Holyrood in under nine hours, with the parliament only sitting for one day this week due to the pandemic.
A maximum of 79 of the 129 MSPs will be allowed in the chamber at any one time in order to maintain social distancing.
The legislation is designed to work alongside the emergency bill passed at Westminster last week, which MSPs gave their consent to and which underpins new police powers to enforce the lockdown.
It will introduce new rules in specific devolved areas, focused mainly on housing and justice.
- moves to protect tenants from eviction by increasing notice periods to six months
- an overhaul of the justice system, allowing anyone to participate in court hearings by video or audio link
- provision for the early release of some prisoners from jails if staff levels fall dangerously low
- relaxed rules for local authorities, including longer deadlines for planning and licensing decisions and to respond to Freedom of Information requests
Mr Russell said that “we are in an emergency and these are emergency powers that are necessary to allow us to concentrate on the absolute priority of dealing with the pandemic”.
There is to be a strict time limit on the new powers, which will initially be in force for six months.
MSPs will have the opportunity to extend this by a further six months on two occasions, to a maximum period of 18 months overall. Ministers have also pledged to report back to Holyrood on the use of the powers every two months,
The bill originally included measures to allow more trials of serious crimes to be heard entirely by judges, with jury trials having been suspended for the duration of the lockdown.
This provision is not mirrored in England and Wales, where such trials are simply on hold, and prompted opposition from lawyers and other political parties.
Ministers said this might be needed to prevent a backlog of “the most serious cases” building up, and that this would only happen subject to further parliamentary scrutiny – but the Tories said trial by jury was “an important safeguard of human rights which we would be most reluctant to see removed”.
The Scottish Criminal Bar Association hit out the “draconian” move, saying it would be “at best a knee-jerk reaction to an as-yet unquantified problem, instigated by panic, and at worst something far more sinister”.
SNP MP Joanna Cherry, who is a QC, also questioned the Scottish government’s move to do away with jury trials, tweeting: “I don’t believe this is necessary. Trials being delayed is enough. This is the obvious compromise. The reality is that life is on hold for everyone.”
However Scotland’s most senior judge, Lord Carloway, said delays to serious cases were “likely to stretch into years rather than months” if no action was taken, with a backlog of more than 1,000 trials building up even if restrictions were lifted by the start of summer.
And Victim Support Scotland backed the move “to prevent victims of serious crime waiting even longer for their cases to be heard”.
Mr Russell confirmed that the part of the bill relating to trials would be deleted “in order to allow a wide-ranging discussion by all interested parties”.
He said the government would bring back another emergency bill, on 21 April, to re-examine the issue to make sure that courts can continue to function.
Mr Yousaf said he would immediately begin discussions with the judiciary, legal profession, victims of crime and opposition parties to find a “practical, achievable” solution.
Scotland’s coronavirus deaths
The legislation was drawn up in consultation with opposition parties, so the remainder of the bill is expected to pass through Holyrood fairly smoothly.
However there will still be debate on some points, with opposition parties tabling amendments on other key issues.
The protection from evictions appears to only apply to notices issued after the legislation was put down – similar to measures in the Westminster legislation which were criticised by Labour and housing charity Shelter.
The Greens want to strengthen the ban on evictions by temporarily barring landlords from serving any eviction notices, while allowing students to get early termination of leases in private accommodation they are now not using.
The Lib Dems and Conservatives had tabled amendments on the issue of jury trials, although these have now been overtaken by the government’s u-turn.
Questions had also been raised about proposals to relax Freedom of Information rules, tripling the amount of time given to public authorities to answer questions, and ministers said they would also change this to “reflect concerns”.