Future Scottish Governments should look at reducing the volume of justice legislation, according to Holyrood's Justice Committee in a "Legacy Paper" prepared for its successor.
During the present session, the committee has had to consider 13 Government bills and four members’ bills, compared with a total of 12 bills considered in session 3. "As a consequence, we have only had time to undertake one full-scale inquiry, which took place early in the session. We consider this to be unacceptable", the report states. Despite intentions to inquire into issues of long-term strategic importance, such as access to civil justice and reducing “churn” and inefficiency in the criminal justice system, the committee has had "little opportunity to make progress on any of these matters".
The report notes the history through successive Parliaments of having sometimes one and sometimes two Justice Committees, the latter having been proposed again for next session by a report on parlliamentary reform. The committee comments that it is "unclear how the proposal would work in practice". When tried previously, "this appeared to lead only to an increase in the volume of legislation in line with the increased committee time available to examine it. There was also quite understandable confusion as to lines of authority in terms of overall scrutiny of the Justice Department and a dilution of members’ knowledge and expertise of issues across the two committees".
A further development discussed in the report is the enabling of the Delegated Powers & Law Reform (DPLR) Committee to examine bills based on Scottish Law Commission (SLC) reports. The Justice Committee's main concern here is that "the distinction between bills making predominantly technical changes to Scots law [which the DPLR Committee would take on] and bills of wider policy importance is often far less clear in practice than it may be in theory".
It continues: "Even the most ostensibly 'technical' bills can, on closer inspection, turn out to raise questions of general interest and significance. There is also the risk of the future DPLR Committee’s remit to look at justice-related bills being widened by increment, particularly in cases where there is an apparent 'bottleneck' at a future Justice Committee and the Parliamentary Bureau is looking for ways to circumvent it. In our view, a committee with the express remit of monitoring the Justice Department is generally best placed to provide robust scrutiny of the policy aspects of justice legislation and therefore any moves to extend the remit of the DPLR Committee should be very carefully considered. This is an area that our successor committee may wish to monitor more closely."
The report concludes this discussion with the comment: "On the basis of our observations set out above, our clear preference is for the volume of justice bills to be revisited by future Governments rather than for a second Justice Committee to be created."