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25 June 2003

S2M-191 Modernising Justice

The Presiding Officer (Mr George Reid): The next item is a debate on motion S2M-191, in the name of Cathy Jamieson, on modernising justice, and two amendments to the motion.
14:34
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15:54
Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I join many other speakers in the chamber in welcoming a large number of the proposals that the minister has announced. If the measures can contribute to an effective justice system for the people of Scotland, we should all welcome them.
I start by congratulating the people who work in the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service on their commitment to the public service ideal and on their ability to deliver—often, over recent years, in circumstances of lamentably inadequate resources. The rise in cases that have been marked as "no proceedings"—or "no pros"—is damaging to the workings of the system of justice and to its credibility and image among the public.
That said, I support much of what the Executive is proposing although I, like other members, have one very serious reservation, which relates to the 110-day rule. To increase the 110 days to 140, as is being suggested, might in fact risk making things substantially worse. I say that as someone who is looking at the proposal as a management issue. The benefit of 30 extra days will deliver a resource benefit once and once only. Once it is used, the capacity of the system to deal with cases will remain absolutely unchanged, because the number of people working in the system remains the same.
The idea gets worse, however, when one examines it more closely. The backlog of cases will increase and it will take more resources to manage that backlog. An individual case will be picked up more often and reviewed more often, and that will use additional resources. Very quickly, the one-off benefit in resource terms of a further 30 days would be reduced over the longer term. To view the matter purely as an operational efficiency issue, reducing the 110-day rule to a 90-day rule would make for more effective use of resources.
Of course, it is not just a resource issue. It is a question of justice, and that must be the top priority. There must be justice for the victims of crime and the real sufferers of unacceptably high numbers of no pros. Justice must also be delivered to the accused. Cases' being dragged out works against that, but shortening time limits to restrict the justice that can be delivered would not be any better. It is against the serving of the ends of justice that we must test the Executive's plans. Let us look at what has actually been happening. The Justice 1 Committee and Justice 2 Committee joint discussions on the budget for 2003 revealed that total managed expenditure rose by 3.1 per cent in real terms, while justice department expenditure fell by 1.7 per cent.
If I return to time limits, the minister might argue that the Executive's proposal is a modernisation. If we look at the matter differently however, it could be an opportunity to make real changes rather than just tinker at the edges and have to revisit the whole issue when the system melts down at a later stage.
I would like to make a few suggestions, some of which are entirely personal, as a member of Parliament contributing to the debate. The document on modernising the justice system refers to early pleas. If the accused pleads guilty on the day of the trial, that inconveniences a vast number of people. In 2001, more than half of all cases ended that way. Of course, that is not a free-standing problem; it is part of a general system. Judges must have the discretion to decide on sentencing, but perhaps there is scope for more transparency and more statutory provision to enable sentence discounting. The minister should seek the opportunity to make it clear that criminals will get discounts for admitting what they have done, but that must also be something that the victims and the public feel happy with.
Miss Goldie referred to the increase in 1887 from 100 days to 110 days, and she said that the modern world should make things faster. However, there is a saying that every new solution brings a new problem, and technology creates many new opportunities for wrongdoing, so perhaps it is not quite as simple as she suggested.
The minister has proposed a correctional agency, and we shall see how the detail of the proposals works out. If it helps, I am sure that it will have our support. There is one thing that it might do that is not currently done. At the moment, those who do not go to jail after being found guilty are not tested for literacy, which is a big factor in much offending. The minister might care to think about that.
Moving from three-year sentences to five-year sentences in the sheriff courts will involve dealing with long-term offenders in the sheriff courts for the first time. Will that have implications for parole eligibility for programmes? Currently, the bail limit is 12 months and the Executive discounts changing to nine months. It takes nine months to create a life, so it might be reasonable to deliver a life in a similar time scale.
Finally, although the minister referred to civil proceedings, there has not been much reference to such proceedings, although there needs to be more. With only one in 20 civil actions proceeding on the scheduled day, there is plenty of scope for the minister to contribute to reform in that area.
I support Nicola Sturgeon's amendment.
16:00

Stewart Stevenson
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