No big promises, and a reasonable understanding of the issues, while sometime remaining at odds over the way forward. That would be my impression of the first of the two Scottish Parliament election hustings hosted by the Law Society of Scotland last night.
There would have been no excuses for falling short on the issues, given that the panel, impressively, consisted of Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill (SNP), Labour spokesman Richard Baker, Conservative former Justice Committee convener Bill Aitken, Liberal Democrat deputy spokesman (I think) Mike Pringle, along with local activist Peter McColl for the Greens. However, prompted by chairman David Lee of the Scotsman, we had a solid exchange of views on some of the key issues – though only some, because of the time involved in dealing with those raised in the questions taken.
Though inevitably it figured largely, we managed not to spend the whole evening dealing with crime. Aitken was clear that the Gill reforms should be implemented as quickly as possible, partly because it would be of economic benefit in bringing more litigation business to Scotland; Baker described them as "issues for debate". Pringle agreed reform was needed but noted the serious limitations on finance. ABS/legal services reform was mentioned mainly in the passing, though MacAskill (and Aitken) referred to it also as a likely source of economic benefit through enabling Scottish firms to compete with others. Asked to name the "most positive" piece of legislation of the past four years, Baker and MacAskill both opted for the Act to preserve the rights of those suffering from pleural plaques. (Pringle and Aitken nominated the Criminal Justice and Licensing Act 2010, though for different reasons.)
The four main parties were all clear that the economic situation prevented more money being available for legal aid; and the Society's engagement was welcomed in trying to achieve as fair an outcome as possible. Only the Greens at present favour increasing taxes to make more money available to Government; whether the public could stand, never mind welcome, yet a further imposition is open to question.
Cadder and its aftermath came up, of course. Most speakers were unwilling to predict or prejudge the outcome of the Carloway review, though Aitken described corroboration as "enshrined, properly, in Scots law". He as well as MacAskill wanted to limit appeal to the Supreme Court to cases where the High Court gave leave. It was Baker who, having given the least specific opening address of any of the panel, affirmed on this issue that we cannot have an isolationist approach without coming out of the ECHR and that preserving the present right of appeal is better than having to go to Strasbourg.
Not as much was made of knife crime, and sentencing generally, as might have been the case, though we were indeed reminded of whose emphasis is more on punishment and deterrent (Baker, Aitken) and whose on prevention of reoffending (the others). And Pringle and McColl were alone in resisting moves towards a national police force, though MacAskill stopped short of committing to a full merger.
We didn't get a chance to quiz the panel on proposed measures to improve the prospects for rape convictions, or prison capacity, among other hot topics.
What are we to make of the event as a whole? It is fair comment that, as was said from the platform, many justice-related issues are not party political. At the same time there are matters such as knife crime where the tabloids have a field day, and politicians unfortunately often feel the need to play to their agenda. Comments at last night's event, away from such an environment were decidedly more restrained; one questioner indeed commented that he was "reassured by the performance of the last Parliament compared with the things said before the last election".
Which does leave me with some concern that more people will make up their minds on the basis of media coverage of just such remarks. Is that the price of democracy?
- A further hustings, with a different chairman and panel, takes place from 6-8pm tonight at the Radisson Blu Hotel, Glasgow. There is also a joint event on Tuesday 26 April involving the Law Society of Scotland, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England & Wales, at the RICS offices, 9 Manor Place, Edinburgh.