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20 April 2006

S2M-4255 Civil Justice Reform

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 20 April 2006

[THE PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 09:15]

... ... ...

Civil Justice Reform

The Presiding Officer (Mr George Reid): The next item of business is a debate on motion S2M-4255, in the name of Cathy Jamieson, on civil justice reform.

14:57

... ... ...

16:37

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): The debate has been characterised by a variety of insights into the system and by a useful degree of consensus—there has been greater-than-usual consensus on the front benches. I can speak comparatively free from the tickle in the back of my throat entirely as a result of an intervention by the Deputy Minister for Justice, who passed a peppermint to me earlier in the debate. He is an old sweetie.

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Murray Tosh): I should point out that eating in the chamber is against the standing orders, Mr Stevenson.

Stewart Stevenson: I am not sure that I said that I ate the peppermint, Presiding Officer.

That aside, what happened neatly illustrates a legal dilemma that I might have in the civil justice system. If I fall ill this evening during my drive north to my home, I do not know whether I should sue the deputy minister—of course, he might be subject to parliamentary privilege in that regard—or the manufacturer of the peppermint. I did not see who the manufacturer was, although I think it was Trebor, which is of course a highly respectable company.

Bill Aitken: Despite Mr Purvis's admonitions about using technical language, does Mr Stevenson agree that it would be a case of volenti non fit injuria?

Stewart Stevenson: Mr Aitken illustrates his ability to turn from poacher to gamekeeper. In his role as a poacher, that would be a matter for the criminal law. I expect sanctions to be levied against him in due course.

It is interesting to examine the attitudes of those of us who are not lawyers to the legal profession. Early in my professional career, I worked with an eminent company of lawyers in Edinburgh called Maclay Murray and Spens, which was universally known as Delay, Worry and Expense: chant the name together—we all know it. The name perfectly illustrates the attitude of lay people towards civil justice and lawyers in general. For many people who are not poor enough to be supported in pursuing legal actions or wealthy enough to pursue legal actions to the point of absolute resolution and satisfaction, going to law is genuinely difficult.

In her introductory remarks, on the first of her six points the minister talked about disproportionate costs. She made the fair and absolutely reasonable point that going to court is costly just to get £750. However, what she did not mention, although it was mentioned in the strategic review on the delivery of legal aid, advice and information, which started in 2003, was that there is disproportionate risk and reward for the different parties when a large corporation and a private individual are in confrontation before the courts. The review document acknowledges that under the heading, "Ensuring equality before the law". In fact, the document goes further than that.

The minister may recall that my colleague, Fergus Ewing, wrote to her on 7 April about one of the voluntary organisations in his constituency, which believes that it may be about to be sued. As a voluntary organisation, it is not entitled to civil legal aid and has limited resources to resist the depredations of a large company that is threatening—however indirectly—to sue it. It is a difficult and complex area, and the fear of runaway costs will be a huge deterrent to a company's going to law to defend its interests, whether to pursue someone or to defend against an unreasonable attack from a large body. The members of the review panel—unusually, although I am not sure why—included a representative of the Big Lottery Fund board. In many ways, that perfectly illustrates that going to civil law can be, for many people, a bit of a lottery.

Kenny MacAskill, who is a lawyer, spoke of his difficulties in enforcing a warranty. If a lawyer says that it is difficult—

Mr MacAskill: A retired lawyer.

Stewart Stevenson: My colleague reminds me that he is a retired lawyer.

My spouse, on the other hand, has had a similar issue in relation to a minor bump that she had in the car. Fortunately, she had inadvertently ticked the box on her insurance application and paid the extra £10 to get legal support. When she got it, the support was excellent: she had no fears about the costs and she got her excess back from the other party, who had caused the accident. Had she not ticked that box, the £300 in question would have gone west.

This has been a useful debate, which has touched on many aspects of life in Scotland. More and more of us are becoming engaged in civil law and, perhaps, in criminal law. The efficiency and effectiveness of court processes must be addressed, but we must also consider how we can give people affordable access to more efficient processes. In speeding things up, we cannot trade off thoroughness and fairness against speed because one party's advantage may, in certain circumstances, be another party's disadvantage. It is complex, and we wish the minister well in her endeavours on this. When she gets it right, we will support her.

16:44

S2M-4252 Drug Treatment and Rehabilitation

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 20 April 2006

[THE PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 09:15]

Drug Treatment and Rehabilitation

The Presiding Officer (Mr George Reid): Good morning. The first item of business is a debate on motion S2M-4252, in the name of Rosemary Byrne, on a statutory right to drug treatment and rehabilitation.

09:15

... ... ...

09:30

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I welcome the minister's acknowledgement of what is said in the SNP amendment and, in turn, I acknowledge that the Executive's amendment reflects something that we can support. Consensus on this difficult subject is highly to be desired. The issue must be above much of the hurly-burly of party politics. The problem is far too serious for us in the major parties to spend time exercising our differences, given that the way forward will more usefully be found by our identifying what we have in common.

Of course it is proper that we debate this important subject. Rosemary Byrne explained helpfully where the figure of the £160,000 in thefts by addicts comes from. Others in the criminal justice system would suggest an average of £36,000 in thefts a year per addict, but that still leaves us with an immense problem, so let us not get bogged down in arguing about the odd billion pounds here and there. Whatever figure we come up with, we have a substantial problem.

I will refer in passing to a number of research documents that touch on the issue. The first is the report by Neil McKeganey, Zoё Morris, Joanne Neale and Michele Robertson from the centre for drug misuse research at the University of Glasgow—a highly respected institution—who conducted a survey of drug addicts' aspirations. The interesting, but not surprising, thing is that 56.6 per cent of the addicts questioned wanted to get clean and come off drugs, while a substantially smaller proportion simply sought harm reduction.

Aspiration and achievement are of course two different things. We have to support addicts as they move towards abstinence, to whatever extent they are able to make that journey. To do that, we have to tailor the interventions to the needs and abilities of addicts. There is no one-size-fits-all option. If there were, we would have solved the problem by now.

Margo MacDonald: My question relates specifically to what Stewart Stevenson has just said. In the study by Neil McKeganey, did addicts to hard drugs have a different attitude to abstention to that of perpetual users of soft drugs?

Stewart Stevenson: We are talking basically about hard drugs.

I refer members to the study, "Licit and Illicit drug use in the Netherlands, 1997" by the Centrum voor Drugsonderzoek, which was one of the most wide-ranging studies in Europe. It examined the aspirations and behaviour of 45,000 addicts and received an acceptable response from just over half that number. The summary of conclusions on page 9 of the study states:

"Cannabis use in Amsterdam, like all other illicit drug use, is highest compared to the rest of the country."

That leads us to consider whether, by being softer on cannabis, we deliver a benefit to the users of hard drugs.

Tommy Sheridan (Glasgow) (SSP): Will the member take an intervention?

Stewart Stevenson: I am sorry, but I do not have time.

It is perfectly clear that the approach that is taken in Amsterdam would provide a benefit in police time, but it would not touch on drug use. The study that was done in the Netherlands shows that legalising cannabis does not reduce hard drug use. If there is comparable evidence that is as soundly based and as widely surveyed and that tells a different story, I would be delighted to see it, because that would give us a way forward.

The key point to which I want to return, as I have done in previous debates, is the information gap. The Executive has said in its plans that through its substance misuse research programme it will fund research into drug users' perceptions of the risk of overdose and delays in calling for help. However, I encourage the Executive to go much further. I do not often commend what comes out of the strategy unit at number 10 Downing Street, but its annual report on drugs is very worth while. It shows the changing pattern of hard drug use, starting in the 1950s and 1960s, and suggests that in England drug-motivated crime is worth £19 billion. That is another figure, and it is not helpful to have other figures. The report also breaks down the various crimes and shows that cannabis is about four times as heavily used as heroin.

This is a useful debate, albeit a short one. Later, my colleague Maureen Watt will speak about her experience as a prison visitor in Aberdeen and other related experience. I will listen with great interest to what she has to say.

I am afraid that Miss Goldie is once again perhaps overplaying her hand. I say to Margo MacDonald that the last thing that we need is another commission.

I move amendment S2M-4252.3, to leave out from "the continuing" to end and insert:

"that the cost to communities, drug addicts and their families, and the public purse of drug misuse remains unacceptably high; believes that a range of interventions must be available to addicts across Scotland that are tailored to their individual needs; encourages the Scottish Executive to give further support to efforts to recover assets from drug barons; recognises that drug abuse is primarily a health issue but that intervention from the criminal justice system will often be the first opportunity for users to start on the road to recovery, and, in the absence of any compelling evidence, does not believe that any relaxation of the rules on drug misuse would do other than exacerbate current problems."

09:36

Stewart Stevenson
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