Justice system is crumbling while minister in charge sits in monastic silence
IMAGINE a country where the number of reported rapes has soared by nearly a third in a year — but the justice minister thinks locking people up is ‘puerile’.
Teenage criminals including killers are to be spared a spell behind bars in favour of ‘care-based alternatives’, and will be treated as young offenders until the age of 25 because of their supposedly immature brains.
Offenders jailed for less than four years could be freed automatically after serving just a third of their sentences — liberating them from prisons awash with drugs.
Some 30,000 crimes in the past three years were committed by people who were on bail — 30 of them were homicides — while a dysfunctional justice quango says sex offenders can’t be called ‘high-risk’ because it’s disrespectful.
It sounds dystopian but in fact it’s a snapshot of Scotland after 15 years of unrelenting soft touch justice from the SNP.
The current Justice Secretary, Keith Brown, recently pleaded with the public to send him their ideas for cutting through the massive Covid-induced courts backlog.
That’s the one which some experts estimate could take up to a decade to clear — delays fuelled by the SNP’s programme of court closures.
Mr Brown also unveiled a strategy for cracking down on organised crime — the first such action plan in seven years — which was built on the premise that it was up to the public to defeat gangsters.
One of his hapless predecessors, Kenny MacAskill, set the bar low for future holders of the post when he freed Britain’s worst mass murderer, the Lockerbie bomber.
Mr MacAskill once said the idea that policing was about protecting people from bad guys was an ‘anachronism’ — then instigated cost-cutting reforms which saw the creation of the single police force.
As we reported yesterday, it faces a funding gap of £200million, and candidly admits that it lags behind the rest of the UK on investment in body-worn video cameras and its ageing fleet of vehicles.
Some 140 police stations and offices have shut down since 2013, when the single service was launched, with the Scottish Police Federation warning that ‘many communities are now not phoning the police as they have little confidence of a meaningful response’.
Meanwhile, recorded crimes of violence and sexual offences are on the rise, despite the SNP’s protestations that Scotland is safer under its watch.
The number of non-sexual crimes of violence has risen by 18 per cent, while sexual crimes are up by a quarter, according to the latest Scottish Government data, comparing February 2022 with the same month last year.
Undeterred by these sobering statistics, some Scots police officers have flown to Colombia to help their counterparts with crime prevention (maybe we should be taking lessons from the Colombians).
A watchdog’s report last year found that Scotland’s police are in the grip of a ‘culture driven by fear and misogyny’, with nearly one in three current and former female employees telling a survey they had been subjected to harassment, including sexual assault.
An outside force, the Police Service of Northern Ireland, has been called in to conduct of a review after a damning employment tribunal found evidence of ‘sexism’ in the firearms division at Police Scotland, which was branded an ‘absolute boys’ club’.
For his part, Mr Brown has had almost nothing to say about any of this, and certainly nothing that might be described as meaningful input — in time-honoured fashion, he’s keeping out of public view and hoping to blend in with the scenery.
Perhaps his only memorable contribution has been to be implicated in the ferries fiasco as one of the ministers who, in a previous role, allegedly signed off a disastrous contract that could end up costing taxpayers £400million.
Mr Brown may have achieved the unlikely feat of displaying even less competence than Mr MacAskill in one of the great offices of state, and perhaps less competence than even Humza Yousaf — something which many observers might considered more or less impossible.
Mr Yousaf, now health secretary, said in May last year that the public looked to him to be a ‘voice of justice’, and claimed he was prepared to seek to ‘delegitimise’ the UK rule of law when he believed it was right to do so.
When a minister starts sounding like crazed Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, it’s never an encouraging sign.
He was also fond of saying that most people don’t ‘experience’ crime, but then again the Scottish Government’s own researchsuggeststhat more than 60 per cent of it is never reported anyway.
The tally of drug deaths in Scotland is higher than anywhere else in Europe — but possession of small amounts of heroin and cocaine can be now be dealt with by means of a Recorded Police Warning, so the courts needn’t be troubled by it.
Nor will they be troubled by the inconvenience of having to sort out juries for rape trials under proposals being considered by SNP ministers.
Senior figures believe some jurors have outdated views about rape which, they claim, aren’t shared by well-trained judges.
Indeed Dorothy Bain, the Lord Advocate, who approved the warnings for heroin users, said in December that Scots don’t even have a ‘right’ to a jury trial.
It was an unfortunate signal for a 21st-century prosecution service to send, and sparked a backlash among legal practitioners who pointed out that juries are a feature of most modern, progressive democracies.
The Crown Office has had to fork out tens of millions of pounds in compensation in the Rangers fraud debacle, when innocent men were the victims of ‘malicious prosecution’ — a scandal that could ultimately cost the taxpayer up to £100million.
It’s baffling that anyone thought it would be advisable to raise the idea that juries in some trials could be ditched, with trust in Scottish justice at such a low ebb.
The Crown, under James Wolffe, QC, Miss Bain’s predecessor, was criticised last year by former Supreme Court judge Lord Hope of Craighead over its intervention in the Salmondgate debacle — when it was accused of attempting to censor the former First Minister’s evidence to a Holyrood inquiry.
Serving judges have also voiced their concern over Mr Brown’s early release plans — last month the Senators of the College of Justice warned the ‘proposals raise profound questions concerning the impact on public confidence’ in Scottish justice.
Judges and even former judges aren’t known for speaking out in this way, so when they do it’s a reasonable indication that things have gone badly wrong.
As these and other crises unfold, Mr Brown has followed the example of previous justice secretaries by sitting on the side-lines, maintaining a monastic silence (apart from the odd blundering intervention) — and hoping it all goes away.
It’s a gigantic abdication of responsibility by a minister out of his depth, and plainly out of ideas, as our once-revered justice system veers from crisis to calamity.
- This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on April 5, 2022.
- Follow me on Twitter: @GrahamGGrant