HUMZA Yousaf knocked back Tory suggestions that a pilot of juryless trials in rape cases is the SNP “meddling in the independence of the judiciary” as he defended the policy at First Minister’s Questions.

Appearing in Holyrood on Thursday, the SNP leader pointed out that proposals for a pilot of juryless rape trials had come from the Scottish judiciary’s second-most senior member, Lady Leeona Dorian.

Conservative Russell Findlay, the third MSP to raise the issue at FMQs, said: “Lawyers across Scotland say they will boycott the SNP’s planned juryless trials, with senior judges also raising concerns that removing jurors constitutes political meddling in the independence of the judiciary by this SNP Government.

“So, as I asked his Justice Secretary yesterday, will Humza Yousaf ignore these concerns, pass his bill, and simply hope for the best?”

Responding, Yousaf said: “Of course, we will listen to the views of the legal profession. We will listen to the weight of opinion of the judiciary, and of course we’ll give appropriate weight to the voices of victims and survivors too.”

He went on: “I would make this point quite robustly to Russell Findlay, that this pilot, or proposal for a pilot, of juryless trials is coming from Lady Dorian.

“It is not government interference by simply exploring a recommendation from the second most senior judge, the Lord Justice Clerk of Scotland.

“So I think it doesn't do an issue that requires great sensitivity any justice when we attempt to throw around terms like ‘political interference’, regardless of where that comes from.

“So I think let's absolutely give consideration to the voices of the judiciary. But let's also not forget the voices of victims and survivors on this issue.”

READ MORE: Juryless rape trials considered south of Border despite backlash in Scotland

Speaking to SNP MSP Christine Grahame, who first raised the topic, Yousaf quoted the charity Rape Crisis Scotland, which has been vocal in its support for juryless rape trials.

The First Minister said: “I quote them that many survivors described the process of going to court more traumatic than the rape itself. That is an unacceptable position in any justice system.”

Former SNP minister Ivan McKee raised the work of Professor Fiona Leverick, whose report “What do we know about rape myths and juror decision making?” he said was often cited in discussions over juryless rape trials.

McKee said: “That report concludes by stating that before suggesting anything as drastic as removing juries from criminal trial service, it’s worth considering that the answer might lie in addressing problematic attitudes via juror education.

“This is argued in the report as the way forward before more radical measures are considered. Does the First Minister agree?”

Yousaf said it would be “absolutely” right to explore both options, but noted that the University of Glasgow’s Professor Leverick “does support the proposal for a pilot” of judge-only rape trials.

The proposals for a pilot scheme are found in the Victims, Witnesses and Justice Reform (Scotland) Bill.

The National: From left: Anas Sarwar, Humza Yousaf, and Douglas RossFrom left: Anas Sarwar, Humza Yousaf, and Douglas Ross (Image: PA)

The leaders of the two main opposition parties – Scottish Tory Douglas Ross and Scottish Labour’s Anas Sarwar – both focused on cancer treatment times in the NHS.

One in four people suspected of having cancer do not start treatment within the 62-day target, Ross said, raising the case of one patient in NHS Grampian who waited 156 days to start chemotherapy.

The First Minister agreed that performance against the 62-day target “must be improved”, accepting that while this had been “impacted and affected by the pandemic” there were “challenges around the 62-day target pre-pandemic too”.

He further pledged: “The treatment of cancer, early diagnosis and the early treatment of cancer is an absolute number one priority for the Government I lead.”

Sarwar claimed there was a “lost decade” for health under the SNP, saying there had been 398 more cancer deaths in Scotland than experts had expected so far in 2023.

Responding, Yousaf said the government had “deep regret” for patients who were forced to wait to begin treatment, but said Sarwar had failed to mention the impact of a decade of Westminster austerity on the Scottish health service.

“When it comes to who is trusted with the NHS, we tend to leave that verdict to the people of Scotland,” the SNP leader said.