05:06, March 07 91 0 theguardian.com

2020-03-07 05:06:05
Alex Salmond's trial: what will happen and how it will be reported

The Scottish legal system has a number of unique features – including the not proven verdict and the requirement for corroboration – which will come into the spotlight as the trial of Alex Salmond begins on 9 March.

Scotland’s former first minister will appear at the high court in Edinburgh charged with a series of alleged sexual assaults, including an attempted rape, against 10 women. He denies all the charges.

Media covering the trial, which is expected to last for up to four weeks, will be mindful of contempt laws, set out in the 1981 contempt of court act. This applies across the UK and, in some respects, it is applied more strictly in Scotland than in England. For example, the publication of photographs of accused suspects is seldom allowed north of the border.

These rules exist to ensure that juries and witnesses are not influenced by anything other than the evidence they hear in court, and apply to everyone from journalists reporting on the trial to individuals posting comments on social media.

Not proven is one of three options available to a jury or court in Scotland along with guilty and not guilty. It leaves the accused innocent in the eyes of the law but critics argue it is confusing for juries and the public.

The three-verdict system and the need for corroboration – two separate sources of evidence are required before a case can proceed to trial – are thought to have a disproportionate effect on rape and sexual assault cases, leading to markedly lower prosecution and conviction rates.

While there is no general prohibition on identifying sexual offence complainers in Scotland, editorial convention dictates that they are not, although such restrictions can apply if a special order is made under s.11 of the 1981 act.

During the 10 women’s evidence, the court will be cleared of the public and only two media representatives – from the Press Association and the Edinburgh Court Service – will be in court, with the rest watching by video link in a separate room.

Ahead of the case, Rape Crisis Scotland has published a set of guidelines on how to report sexual assault trials responsibly.

The eight guidelines, written in conjunction with Prof Karen Boyle of Strathclyde University for the Gender Equal Media Scotland project, encourage reporters to be scrupulous about the language they employ, referring to specific charges rather than “sex claims”, for example, and using neutral descriptives such as “witness”, “accused” and “complainer”.

The guidelines also call on journalists to be alert to the effect of their reporting on the public. “These reports reverberate beyond the courtroom. The audience for sexual assault trial reporting includes potential and actual perpetrators and victims or survivors. How these cases are reported can make it more – and less – likely that potential perpetrators reflect on their actions, that incidents are reported to the police, and that victim or survivors seek support.”

They also encourage news organisations to provide links to relevant national helplines, noting that organisations supporting victims experience an increase in demand for their services when there are high-profile stories about sexual assault in the media, whatever the outcome of a criminal case.

Sandy Brindley, of Rape Crisis Scotland, said: “We know that reporting of sexual assault cases can be really difficult for many survivors, and we do sense that there is a real willingness amongst media organisations to report these issues responsibly.

“These guidelines apply to any sexual assault trial, and we hope that they will not only be read by those reporting daily from court but also by editors, headline-writers, and all those who are likely to be discussing any high profile case on radio and television.”

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