07 November 2001

S1M-2406 Chhokar Inquiries

Scottish Parliament

Wednesday 7 November 2001


[THE PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 14:30]

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Chhokar Inquiries

The Presiding Officer (Sir David Steel): Our main item of business today is a debate on motion S1M-2406, in the name of Jim Wallace, on the report into the investigation, legal proceedings and family liaison arrangements in the case of the murder of Surjit Singh Chhokar, and two amendments to that motion.


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Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): Today's debate has focused on resources—on their quantity and quality and how we deploy them. Value for money is the Government watchword these days. That means balancing efficiency against effectiveness.

In this sorry tale we have seen neither efficiency nor effectiveness. The Chhokar family's loss remains unrequited. It is not for nothing that members of the Sikh religion proudly carry the name Singh, meaning lion-hearted. This family has indeed had to have a lion heart.

Some good things are going on, but—alas—only for criminals. Kenny Gibson raised the issue of the number of cases that are marked for no proceedings. I have examined the numbers. I am sorry that Jack McConnell is not in the chamber to verify my figures, as he is the only Labour member who can count. I will pass them across if the minister wishes to see them.

Can members believe that, if current trends are maintained, in 15 years' time—although I suggest it is unlikely—100 per cent of cases that are referred to the Crown Office will be dealt with either by non-court disposals or by no proceedings? Is that good for justice or for families such as the Chhokars, who have been let down by justice? No. Given Labour's stewardship of the legal system in the past four years, however, that is the stark reality.

If my numbers are projected, by 2016, 72 per cent of cases will receive a non-court disposal and 28 per cent will be subject to no proceedings. Furthermore, by 2011, the district courts will receive no referrals at all. Those are the trends against which we are dealing with these problems.

We hear that there is more money; perhaps that is true. Let me strip back new Labour's clothes. By coincidence, on 17 July 1998, Jim Wallace asked Donald Dewar for information about Scottish Office expenditure. In 1993, the Crown Office received £50 million, an amount that descended gently on a real-terms basis to a projected £46 million in 2001-02.

In evidence to a meeting of the Justice 1 Committee and the Justice 2 Committee, the Lord Advocate said that he wants a service that is

"professional, independent, efficient, well resourced, well managed and has the confidence of the community."—[Official Report, Justice 1 Committee and Justice 2 Committee, 19 September 2001, c 104.]

In a thoughtful and well-informed speech, Gordon Jackson said that we should front-load the system. However, the numbers suggest that the service is not yet well resourced and that we do not have a grip on it.

In light of the events surrounding the Chhokar case, we can be sure that some important segments of our community have little confidence in our justice system. The irony of Jim Wallace's question to Donald Dewar was that it was asked in the context of the document "Serving Scotland's Needs". In the context of the Chhokar case, we have not served Scotland's needs well or the needs of the Sikh community and our other minority communities.

We have talked about the 110-day rule, which is a genuine metric target against which our justice system should be measured. We have heard about the pressures that exist in the justice system and that are created by that target. We should use it positively to ensure that the system gets resources. Today, the Executive should tell us that the 110-day rule is not under threat and that there are no plans to change it.

When our legal system is good, it is very good. When it is bad, it is very bad. In this case, it has been very bad.


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