More than 60 actions to improve Scotland's criminal justice sector are proposed in a report by the Scottish Parliament’s Criminal Justice Committee, published today.

The short and long term changes the MSPs want to see cover prisons and reoffending; victims and witnesses; Scotland's high drug deaths rate; violence against women and girls; young offenders; and legal aid.

Opening with an overview of the impact of COVID-19 on the justice system, the report states that it is clear that two of the key priorities in the current parliamentary session will be reducing the court backlog, on which the committee will be questioning the Justice Secretary further; and a proper assessment of the merits of digital justice. 

On the latter the committee believes that proposals for digital justice “should only progress if there is genuine merit in the proposals, rather than simply being a matter of a cost saving or administrative convenience. Whilst we accept there may never be unanimity, there must be a general consensus from the main participants and we cannot make fundamental changes to how our court system functions and the rights of individuals involved without full and proper debate”.

Topics

Turning to specific topics, to improve prisons and reduce reoffending, the committee wants to see:

  • reintroduction of the Throughcare scheme for those leaving custody;
  • under-18s in secure care rather than HMPYOI Polmont;
  • action against the high levels of drugs and the influence of serious and organised crime groups in jails; and
  • more access to fresh air and purposeful activity for those in prison.

“It is not acceptable to us to spend another parliamentary session commenting on the same issues and making recommendations for change”, this chapter concludes. “Greater action and progress are needed now.”

Action to improve support for victims and witnesses should include:

  • reviewing the Victim Notification Scheme, including assessing whether it may be inadvertently retraumatising victims with unexpected contact;
  • providing those alleging a sexual offence with a single trauma-informed source of contact, from reporting until the conclusion of legal proceedings;
  • changing court buildings to make them less traumatising places for victims and witnesses (for example, by unexpectedly encountering the accused).

Tackling Scotland’s high drug deaths rate should involve:

  • rapidly implementing the recommendations of the Scottish Drug Deaths Taskforce, some of which date from April 2020;
  • ensuring a co-ordinated approach from the justice, social justice and health sectors to fill the service gap between what is currently being provided to help those with a drug problem and what is needed.

But the MSPs recognise that wider health and social justice measures are equally required, and propose further joint work with the relevant Holyrood committees to seek to progress these.

A lengthy chapter on violence against women and girls notes that issues have been raised concerning: 

  • preventative measures such as support for women in society generally, to reduce dependence on abusers; 
  • court delays, and the management of sexual offence cases, both prior to court via pre-recorded evidence and trauma-informed support, and in court perhaps through introducing specialist courts; 
  • cultural issues including treatment by defence solicitors and advocates (such as inappropriate language, and traumatising behaviour). 

The committee says this part of its report, based on a round table and a meeting with survivors, is not intended to replace what would have been produced by an exhaustive and detailed inquiry, but “swifter consideration of longer term reforms is needed in this area”, and urgent action is needed for example on those aspects of Lady Dorrian's report that are aimed at improving procedure. There should not be a two tier system for the prosecution of sexual offences: if a specialist court is established, it should have unlimited sentencing powers.

Regarding young offenders, the MSPs accept “compelling evidence” that preventative work is key to keeping young people from becoming involved with the justice system, or helping them move on from crime. They call for detail from the Scottish Government on progress with various programmes announced to this end – and on action regarding deaths in custody or following release.

On legal aid, the committee concludes that progress with reform has not been fast enough. Rather than further engagement and reviews, “the focus should be on solutions being brought forward to address the key concerns identified”. While it supports the objective of developing a new methodology for setting legal aid fees, this may still be some months or even years away, and “Immediate action on fee rates must form part of the solution.”

Further review

The committee has committed to regularly reviewing progress against these actions across the course of this parliamentary session.

Committee convener Audrey Nicoll MSP said:

“Our inquiries into the Scottish justice sector have exposed once again many deep-rooted problems.

“We know these cannot be solved overnight and there are few easy solutions. However, our committee is determined to see progress made in this parliamentary session. As a critical friend to the Scottish Government and its justice partners, we want them to use our recommendations to drive forward progress and implement changes.

“We believe we have set out a balanced and proportionate action plan which may go some way to improving the criminal justice sector.”

“We’ll be taking stock of progress at regular intervals.”

Click here to view the full report.