Jenny Marra MSP -  Criminal Cases (Punishment and Review) (Scotland) Bill  - Speech in the Scottish Parliament debate

20 June 2012

I welcome the opportunity to speak in the stage 3 proceedings on the Criminal Cases (Punishment and Review) (Scotland) Bill.  

At stage 1, Scottish Labour pledged its support for the bill‟s general principles, but we took the opportunity to highlight some of our concerns around the complexity and relevancy of the bill‟s provisions.  

While we are still happy to support the bill‟s passage through Parliament today, we do so with a continued note of caution and a request that the Government commit to monitor the bill‟s application on those grounds after it is passed today.  

Both parts of the bill are commendable in principle.  

Part 1 addresses an anomaly in the law, which is that offenders serving non-mandatory life sentences are eligible to be considered for release by the Parole Board for Scotland earlier than those serving a comparable determinate sentence.  

Part 2 enhances transparency by allowing the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission to publish reports on cases that are abandoned subsequent to being brought to the appeal court.

Both are positive steps.

However, it is still difficult to tell whether either part 1 or part 2 will serve their stated purpose in practice as effectively as they ought to.

Throughout the Justice Committee‟s evidence taking on the bill there was a feeling—even among members—that the bill was difficult to comprehend, as the cabinet secretary said, and that its outcomes were difficult to predict.  

It is questionable whether the Government has fully addressed those concerns.

The common concern of stakeholders about part 1 was that it sought to solve a complex problem by making it even more complex.

We heard evidence from senior professionals in the justice system to that effect.

David McLetchie, from the Conservative benches, pointed out the most striking example of that complexity when he said during the stage 1 debate that part 1 had been described as

 “„a tortuous system which is barely intelligible to lawyers, let alone to the general public‟”.—[Official Report, 19 April 2012; c 8272.]

Although we accept that, in the absence of a simpler solution, part 1 is entirely necessary as a result of European law, I re-emphasise the important point that I made during stage 1, which is that our justice system must be, and must be seen to be, fair and comprehensible to not only those working within it but the victims of crime and the general public watching.

John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (SNP): Does the member accept that we also heard evidence of the support that is provided to victims by the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, Victim Support Scotland and the like, and that it is not necessarily a requirement for victims to understand the minutiae of the legislation, as opposed to its intention?

Jenny Marra: In the evidence that the committee took, there was an acceptance that there is support in the courts for victims of and witnesses to crime, as John Finnie points out, but I think that there was also an acceptance that the understanding of sentencing generally was not perhaps as good as it could be and that further work might take place to aid that understanding among not only victims and witnesses but the general public.  

In dealing with sentencing for serious crimes, part 1 applies to a sensitive area of our justice system that is often subject to extensive media coverage and public interest, so it is critical that the laws that we create around sentencing are clear and effective and that they achieve the desired outcomes.

As I argued at stage 1, any other outcome could risk doing a great deal of damage to the integrity of our justice system.

It is for that reason that I urge the Government to monitor closely part 1 as it comes into effect and to ensure that it not only addresses the anomaly that it seeks to address, but does so in a way that is seen to be fair and right.  

As the Government is currently undertaking consultation to improve our justice system for victims of and witnesses to crime, I know that it is as keen as Labour is to ensure that sentencing laws are considered fair and right by those who have suffered at the hands of violent and dangerous offenders.

The exact function that part 2 will have in practice remains to be seen.

Just before the stage 1 debate on the bill, a Sunday newspaper printed a redacted version of the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission‟s statement of reasons in the Megrahi case.

The publication of the statement of reasons seemed essentially to remove the need for part 2.

It also appeared to answer many of the questions surrounding the impediment caused by existing data protection law.

Part 2 was devised in response to the Megrahi case.

Although the power of publication will be on the statute book after the bill is passed, it is difficult to imagine a similar scenario to which it will be applicable.

In the Megrahi case, widespread public and political interest pushed a desire for the publication of the statement of reasons in an appeal that was subsequently abandoned.

The legislative process to provide transparency was overtaken by the actions of the media.  

Now the power will rest in law if circumstances arise in which it is needed again.

Although Labour is happy to support the passing of the bill, it is a difficult and complex piece of law that is still to prove its utility in practice.

Part 1 still appears to offer a complex solution to a complex problem, and the relevancy and applicability of part 2 remain to be seen.

Therefore I urge the Government to reflect on how the legislation was drafted and to commit to monitoring its application in our justice system.

 Our justice system must be clear, comprehensible and relevant to those that it serves.

Any law that falls short of those benchmarks must be questioned.

I hope that the bill meets the high standards that are expected by victims and by all those with a stake in the success of our justice system.

Labour is happy to support the bill.

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