Author’s note dated 11 March 2021: the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill successfully completed Stage 3 of the parliamentary process at Holyrood by 82 votes for to 32 against. It now awaits the formality of Royal Assent.
Today, I was talking to a group of students about the fact that cultural factors can sometimes be a much more powerful driver towards changing society’s attitudes about certain issues.
Sometimes when Governments take a very legalistic approach to societal issues e.g. equality and discrimination, they can end up being accused of overkill or using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. A good example of a current controversy is the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill making its way through the Scottish Parliament.
Lord Bracadale, a retired Scottish judge, was commissioned by the Scottish Government in 2017 to review the state of Scotland’s hate crime laws and many of his recommendations are to be found in the Bill.
A link to Lord Bracadale’s Report can be found below:
The Scottish Government, of course, has been criticised in the past for passing laws to combat discrimination – think the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications etc (Scotland) Act 2012 which was eventually repealed on 20 April 2018.
The Scottish Government also had to put its proposals on the back burner to make it easier for transgender people to self-identify in the face of opposition within the SNP and in society more widely.
These are just some examples of the difficulties faced when you decide to go down the legal route. You can pass a law, but will people respect it and, more importantly, obey it?
When I was discussing the significance of culture versus the law this morning, what I meant by that is that organisations and individuals can often drive change in society much more profoundly – even when there is no legal duty to do so.
One example at the organisational level is that of Glasgow University’s recent attempts to confront and make reparation for its historical links with the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.
Individuals such as Glasgow City Councillor, Graham Campbell, have done a lot of good work to highlight the City’s historic links with the Slave Trade. Councillor Campbell has also taken a lead in pushing for the creation of a National Museum in Scotland to commemorate the victims of slavery.
Author’s note dated 17 March 2021: the Appeal Court of the High Court of Justiciary has since reinstated the convictions of the threemen involved in this case. Please see the link below to the High Court’s judgement:
A debate I’ve been having this last week with both my First and Second Year students has concerned the tension between the rights to free speech and freedom of expression and the right not to suffer discrimination – all of which are protected under the European Convention on Human Rights.
Can you say and do what you want even if such actions cause offence to another person? Up to a point, yes, but there are limits to freedom of speech and freedom of expression even in a democratic society which highly prizes such important examples of human rights. If you cross the line which divides acceptable from unacceptable behaviour you may well find that you are accused of a public order offence or, more seriously, hate crime.
To some extent, a case heard last week by the Criminal Division of the Sheriff Appeal Court in Edinburgh indirectly touched on some of these issues (see the Appeals ofDaniel Ward, Martin Macaulay and Ryan Walkerv Procurator Fiscal, Glasgow  SAC (Crim) 006).
The appeals were submitted by three men who had attended a European Champions’ League qualifying tie at Celtic Park, Glasgow on 19 July 2017.
Celtic FC, which has a predominantly Roman Catholic fan base, was playing against Linfield from Belfast, a Club which is mainly supported by Protestants in Northern Ireland. The men had worn T shirts with Irish Republican imagery to the match – undoubtedly a provocative gesture on their part.
To say that the potential for sectarian unrest at this fixture was very high would be something of an understatement. There had, in fact, been trouble between the opposing fans at the first leg of the tie in Belfast the week previously.
Proscribed not prescribed
The complaint issued by the Procurator Fiscal against Messrs Ward, Macaulay and Walker was set out in the following terms:
“On 19 July 2017 at Celtic Park Football Stadium, Glasgow G40 3RE you MARTIN MACAULAY, DANIEL WARD and RYAN WALKER did conduct yourselves in a disorderly manner within said Celtic Park Football Stadium in that you did attend at a regulated football match there whilst wearing a shirt which displayed an image of a figure related to and in support of a prescribed (sic) terrorist organisation namely The Irish Republican Army (IRA) and commit a breach of the peace.“
It is worth highlighting a particular error in the above Complaint issued by Glasgow Procurator Fiscal’s office: there is a very important difference between the words prescribed and proscribed (the correct term which denotes an organisation e.g. a terrorist group which is banned by the State). Whether this error was a typo or ignorance on the part of someone at the Fiscal’s office, I’m unsure.
At the conclusion of their trial at Glasgow Sheriff Court in February 2020, Messrs Ward, Macaulay and Walker were convicted of a breach of the peace.
A large part of the prosecution’s evidence against the trio relied on the testimony of three Police Officers who were on duty at the match. Two of the officers (Constables Stirling and Taylor) served with Police Scotland and the third officer (Constable Nixon) served with the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
Now, you would have been forgiven for thinking that the Crown had met the requirement of corroboration – which is a fundamental principle of Scots criminal law. Corroboration is the duty placed on the Crown prosecutor to produce at least two independent sources of evidence which will prove beyond reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty.
The Sheriff at Glasgow certainly thought so as all three officers were able to describe the imagery displayed on the T-shirts worn by the three co-accused i.e. a man with aviator sunglasses wearing a black beret and a camouflage scarf with the Irish tricolour as a background.
As one of Scotland’s leading criminal defence lawyers, Donald Findlay QC interviewed as a participant in BBC Scotland programme Too young to die – Crime Scenes Scotland: Forensic Squad (first broadcast in 2014) observed:
“The trial system that we have – whether you like it or not – is an adversarial system and it is for the Crown to overcome every legitimate hurdle that we put in the way of them proving their case. Thereby we hope that, if someone is convicted, the conviction is justified.”
Mr Findlay goes on to remark that:
“My part in the law is to say to the Crown that if you want to prove guilt, you’ve got to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt and we’ll do our best to make sure that you do. I can live with that – whatever the outcome.”
Appeal against conviction
The three co-accused appealed on a point of law in terms of Section 160 of the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1995 that the Sheriff had been wrong in his failure to consider their arguments, namely:
1. That the T-shirts did not convey support for a proscribed terrorist organisation (the IRA); and
2. Their behaviour at the football match was not a breach of the peace.
The testimony of each of the officers on the question of the imagery displayed on the T-shirts was highly consistent, but was it safe to say that the value of the evidence presented by each witness should be treated equally?
Alas for the Crown, this is where a major problem emerged. Absolutely no disrespect to the two Scottish Police officers, but they were not in a position to speak with authority on whether the three men by wearing these T shirts were expressing support for a proscribed terrorist organisation.
Significantly, the Sheriff Appeal Court drew specific attention to the decision in Smith v Donnelly 2002 JC 65 which emphasisesthat “ithas been clear beyond doubt that a charge of breach of the peace requires to specify the conduct involved.”
Only Constable Nixon with his direct experience of policing in the febrile environment of Northern Ireland was capable of validating the charges laid out in the complaint. Unfortunately, Constable Nixon’s testimony alone was not sufficient to meet the requirements of corroboration. In a criminal trial, the prosecution case requires certainty not probability.
Reference was made specifically to Lord Kirkwood’s remarks in Fox v HM Advocate 1998 JC 94:
“It is a cardinal principle of our common law that no one can be found guilty of a crime upon the uncorroborated evidence of a single witness, however credible or reliable that witness may be. There must be evidence from at least two separate sources which is capable of establishing the facta probanda beyond reasonable doubt.”
Consequently, the Sheriff Appeal Court quashed the convictions of the three men. This does not mean that the Sheriff Appeal Court is giving the green light to football fans to display such imagery on T shirts and other garments. Far from it: as the judges commented:
“In the particular circumstances which pertained in this case, we would have regarded the wearing of a T-shirt which depicts an image in support of a proscribed organisation, such as the IRA, as so flagrant that the necessary inference could be drawn from it, in the absence of evidence of alarm or annoyance. It is difficult but to conclude that the wearing such T-shirts amounted to a deliberately provocative gesture directed towards the Linfield support. The wearing of such T-shirts in near proximity to the opposing supporters within or around a football stadium is conduct which, if proved, would in our view present as genuinely alarming and disturbing, in context, to any reasonable person.”
Had the prosecution focused on corroborating the element of the charge which emphasised support for a proscribed terrorist organisation, the convictions of the three men might well have been upheld.
Football fans would do well to remember that their right to freedom of expression or freedom of speech could be severely restricted by the Authorities in order to prevent the commission of a crime, such as hate crime or public order offences. If you are still in any doubt, let me point you in the direction of the decision in an earlier appeal judgement of the High Court of Justiciary which reminds us that wearing a T shirt with paramilitary imagery can constitutea breach of the peace (see Maguire v Procurator Fiscal, Glasgow  HCJAC).
A link to the judgement of the Sheriff Appeal Court can be found below:
Every day is supposedly a school day and I have just learned that, 125 years ago today, Oscar Wilde, Victorian poet and novelist, began a sentence for 2 years’ imprisonment for the crime of gross indecency in terms of Section 11 of the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 1885.
This was the culmination of several legal actions in which Wilde had become embroiled in order to end speculation about his sexual orientation. Although married and being the father of two children, Wilde had a secret: he was a gay man living in a very hostile environment.
It was such a hostile environment that Professor Dominic Janes of Keele University (and author of Oscar Wilde Prefigured: Queer Fashioning and British Caricature, 1750-1900) (University of Chicago Press, 2016) states that:
“Britain had some of the strongest anti-homosexuality laws in Europe … The death penalty was in place until 1861 [the last execution took place in 1835]. In general, one of the main images of what we’d call a gay or queer man was a sexual predator of younger men. Many people would have also been informed by religious arguments from the Old Testament.”
When Wilde’s ‘sexual transgressions’ with a number of younger men were finally exposed in court due, in a large part, to the work of a private detective, he didn’t really stand a chance against the ensuing moral outrage of Victorian society.
The trials and eventual prison sentence would ruin Wilde financially and reputationally – for good (or so it seemed at the time).
More information about the trials of Oscar Wilde can be found in an article which appeared in The Independent to mark the 125th anniversary of his downfall.
If Victorian society was uniformly unforgiving and scornful of Wilde in 1895, contemporary British society has certainly rehabilitated his reputation. There is now almost universal agreement that Wilde was the victim of oppressive laws and social attitudes.
Wilde himself would probably be astounded at the amount of progress that members of the LBGTQI community have made in the intervening 125 years.
I’m also sure that he would be delighted to know that he is still the focus of discussion in 2020 (“There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”).
It has been a a long and winding road for members of the LBGTI community to achieve legal recognition and protection.
Before the introduction of the Scotland Act 1998 and the Human Rights Act 1998, society (and particularly the work-place) could be very hostile for LGBTI people (see Macdonald v Lord Advocate; Pearce v Governing Body of Mayfield School  UKHL 34).
Admittedly, the UK was (and still is in spite of Brexit) a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights.
In particular, Article 8 of the Convention recognises the right to family and private life. It was this Article which was used to overturn extremely restrictive laws on same sex relationships which existed in Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands.
Reinforcing Article 8 is Article 14 of the Convention is Article 14 which contains a general prohibition on discrimination.
The late 1960s are often referred to as the key period of the start of gay liberation in the UK with the passing of the Sexual Offences Act 1967 which decriminalised homosexual relationships between consenting adults (aged 21 or over) and as long as such conduct was in private. What is often overlooked is that the 1967 Act applied to England and Wales only. The picture was very different (and would remain so for over a decade – sometimes longer) in various parts of the British Isles.
Homosexual relationships were decriminalised in Scotland in 1980; in Northern Ireland in 1982; the UK Crown Dependency of Guernsey in 1983; the UK Crown Dependency of Jersey in 1990; and the UK Crown Dependency of the Isle of Man in 1994. The age of consent was set at 21 for all these parts of the British Isles; then reduced to 18; and then finally 16 years of age. Societal attitudes had moved on and the law had to follow.
In the last 20 years, the influence of the European Union has also been particularly profound regarding measures to combat sexual orientation discrimination. In spite of Brexit, there is a large body of anti-discrimination law which has been bequeathed to us as a result of our membership of the European Union.
In 1999, as a result of the Treaty of Amsterdam, the EU adopted two Directives which considerably expanded the scope of its anti-discrimination laws (the Racial Equality Directive (2000/43/EC) and the Employment Equality Directive (2000/78/EC). Of particular interest to this discussion is the Employment Equality Directive which made it unlawful to discriminate against a person on grounds of sexual orientation. Admittedly, this Directive was limited because it covered the areas of employment and vocational training only.
This body of law is not just going to disappear overnight when the transitional period for Brexit ends (as currently anticipated by the UK Government) on 31 December 2020. As I often remark, European Union has become hardwired into the various legal systems of this disunited Kingdom.
Indeed, a person’s sexual orientation is, of course, a protected characteristic in terms of Section 12 of the Equality Act 2010. Such individuals should not be subjected to direct discrimination (Section 13); indirect discrimination (Section 19); harassment (Section 26); and victimisation (Section 27).
Even greater strides towards equality were ushered in as a result of the Civil Partnerships Act 2004 which would give legal recognition (and protection) to gay and lesbian people who chose to enter such relationships. These rights would be further underpinned by permitting same sex couples to marry (in England and Wales in 2013 and in Scotland in 2014). Northern Ireland finally legalised same sex marriage in 2020.
When Oscar Wilde was serving part of his sentence in Reading Gaol (which inspired his Ballad of the same name) he could hardly have contemplated life as we know it in 2020.
Only yesterday, I was discussing provisions of the Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill which would have led to the suspension of trial by jury for indictable offences in Scotland.
It seems that the Scottish Government has had second thoughts about this issue and has decided not to proceed with these proposals – although Humza Yousaf MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Justice has said that the Government will revisit the matter sometime in the next month.
This is the essential problem with emergency legislation – the unexpected consequences which arise in such situations due to the fact that there is a lack of effective oversight or supervision.
Were the Government’s proposals a sinister attempt to undermine trial by jury or were they simply a necessary evil determined by social distancing requirements during the COVID-19 crisis?
Whatever reason you prefer, the Scottish Government has found itself at the centre of a backlash from the usual suspects – the Scottish Criminal Bar Association – and from its own supporters e.g. Joanna Cherry QC MP (see below):
This has led to a situation which no Government (irrespective of its political colours) likes to be in: having to make an embarrassing U-turn.
In normal times, of course, the Government would have circulated its proposals in a discussion paper well in advance of any draft legislation being published. In this way, various interested parties, such as the Faculty of Advocates and the Law Society of Scotland, could have made their views known and, for the Government, this allows a useful measurement of the temperature to be taken.
The Law Society of Scotland, which represents solicitors, bemoaned the lack of consultation by the Scottish Government (see below):
This is why emergency legislation should always contain a clause or a provision which allows it to be regularly reviewed by Parliament. In this way, very simple questions can be posed:
Is the law working properly?
Is it still necessary?
Please find below a link to the story about this development on the BBC website:
The situation caused by the COVID-19 continues to generate all sorts of legal consequences. One of the latest angles to be given wide publicity is the rising number of incidents involving assaults carried out by individuals who claim to be infected with the virus.
Several innocent members of the public – whether they be private individuals, shop workers, Police officers or National Health Service staff – have experienced confrontations with extremely anti-social individuals who have threatened to cough over them or spit on them.
One such incident occurred at the weekend, which was reported by BBC Scotland (see below):
Assault in Scotland is generally treated as a common law offence. It would involve a physical attack (or an attempted attack) on another person. Threats issued by a person to a victim would also constitute an assault if these put the victim into a state of fear and alarm.
In relation to the above incident, the clear intention of the teenager (even if he was completely healthy) was to put the healthcare worker into a state of fear and alarm. Hopefully, the victim will remain completely healthy and free of viral symptoms.
This is not, however, the point: her attacker clearly had the mens rea (the guilty mind) and he followed this through with the actus reus (the wrongful act). If there are witnesses and other evidence which can corroborate the incident, then the Police may have grounds to charge her attacker with assault.
If the criminal investigation proceeds to this stage, it will then be for the Procurator Fiscal (the local prosecutor) to determine whether there is enough evidence to initiate criminal proceedings against the accused.
The Lord Advocate, James Wolfe QC has issued a statement in relation to assaults on key workers:
“The Crown has a range of responses available to tackle unacceptable criminal conduct that may arise during the coronavirus pandemic. Any person who deliberately endangers life, or spreads fear and alarm by pretending to do so, will be dealt with robustly. It is difficult to imagine a more compelling case for prosecution in the public interest.”
Although assault is generally considered to be a common law offence, we should be mindful of the provisions of Section 90 of the Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Act 2012 which creates the statutory offence of assaulting or impeding the Police in the discharge of their duties. If an accused is successfully convicted of an offence in terms of Section 90, they may face a maximum prison sentence of 12 months and/or the imposition of a fine.
In England and Wales, a different approach is taken to assault: it is regarded as a statutory offence in terms of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861.
The Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales has stated that attacks on emergency workers may result in a prison sentence of two years being imposed should the accused (the defendant) be found guilty of such an assault (as per Section 38 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861).
Links to stories on the Sky News website about the rise of this type of criminal offence can be found below:
In the United States of America, incidents such as the above have more serious consequences: COVID-19 is classified as a ‘biological agent’. Attempts to spread or threats to spread the virus are treated as a terrorist offence (see below):
Our non-Scottish readers may have difficulty with ‘thole’ – actually to thole, a verb. It means to be able to endure something or someone. Scots will commonly say that they can’t thole a person , meaning that they dislike or have very little time for an individual. I understand that people in in the North of England also use this word.
Assize is probably a word that some lawyers might be familiar with: it means a trial diet (sitting) of a criminal court. Perhaps the best example of the word coming into popular use was the term ‘the Bloody Assizes’ presided over by the notorious, English hanging judge, Lord Chief Justice George Jeffreys in 1685. These events were, of course, a long time ago and followed the Duke of Monmouth’s ill fated rebellion against his uncle, King James VII of Scotland (James II of England, Ireland and Wales).
Enough of history for now …
In the legal context, if we take the two words together and put them into the following sentence: he has tholed his assize, it means that someone has endured prosecution and trial and has been vindicated or acquitted.
This is precisely what happened today at Edinburgh’s High Court of Justiciary (Scotland’s Supreme criminal court of trial) when the former First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond was acquitted of 13 charges that he had sexually assaulted 9 women. The jury found him not guilty of 12 charges and returned a not proven verdict for the remaining charge. Mr Salmond was tried on indictment under solemn procedure in the High Court of Justiciary. Solemn or jury trials are reserved for more serious types of crime and they take place in either the Sheriff Court or the High Court of Justiciary.
It is worth pointing out to our non-Scottish readership that, in Scottish criminal trials, we have 3 possible verdicts, namely:
Not guilty and not proven are both acquittal verdicts, with the not proven verdict being a peculiarly Scottish development. I noted that the BBC referred to this verdict as “highly controversial”. It’s usefulness is still debated to this day, but it is a common outcome of many trials.
It was the jury of 13 – originally 15 – men and women that acquitted Mr Salmond. The jury in a criminal trial is said to be the ‘Master of the facts’, whereas the judge is said to be ‘Master of law’. It is, therefore, the task of the jury to weigh up the evidence presented at trial and come to its verdict.
At this point, I should also remind our readers that it is not simply a case of prosecution and defence presenting their respective cases at the trial. This would be to ignore the subtleties at play: the prosecutor (in the Salmond case: Mr Alex Prentice QC) has to operate under the onus or burden of having toprove the allegations against the accused. All the defence has to do is to deny the allegations. We operate in a system of criminal justice which emphasises the presumption of innocence.
I have been asked by several people over the last few weeks to predict the outcome of the Salmond trial. I have responded in the following way: I do not know Mr Salmond; and I have never met him or his accusers (I do not know these individuals either), so how can I give you a reasoned opinion?
Ah, but my questioners persist: surely, you have been following accounts of the trial via the media? To which I respond, not really …
Now the media does a very important job, but it can only provide us with a subjective view of things. Journalists will prioritise what they think are significant factors – no matter how impartial they think that they are being. Trial by media is never a good thing; it is to the jury alone that we entrust the task of determining the innocence or guilt of the accused.
We shall never know the precise motivations behind the jury’s decision today. Section 8 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 makes it a criminal offence for jurors to reveal the reasons for their decisions (an interesting book about a jury trial in England, but not about the jurors’ deliberations, is The Juryman’s Tale by Trevor Grove (Bloomsbury: 2000).
It may be trite to say this, but there are no such things as open and shut cases. Things (the evidence) can and do sound very different in the surroundings of a court room. I have seen overly confident prosecutors come swiftly undone when the defence emphasises a flaw in the prosecution’s arguments. Here comes the nagging doubt I think; the chink in the armour; the reasonable doubt which heralds an acquittal verdict. Nothing is ever certain.
Whatever your views or feelings about Alex Salmond Esquire, this is exactly what happened today: the jury weighed up the prosecution’s case, found it deficient (in that it did not meet the criminal standard of proof) and acquitted the accused.
A link to an article about the Salmond verdict on the BBC website can be found below:
Scotland’s former first minister is found not guilty on 12 charges, while another allegation is found not proven.
Well, not if you’re under 25 according to recent proposals published by the Scottish Sentencing Council as part of a public consultation process. The main function of the Scottish Sentencing Council is to demystify sentencing decisions and, therefore, educate the public about these matters.
The current proposal might seem very provocative and is bound to divide public opinion. Crime, after all, is a very emotive issue and everyone has an opinion about it whether you have been the victim or the criminal. The purpose of criminal law is about the State punishing those individuals who have broken the rules of the community by engaging in dangerous and/or anti-social activities.
The rationale for the Scottish Sentencing Council’s proposal is that scientific research (carried out by the University of Edinburgh) seems to show that the brains of people aged under 25 years have not fully developed i.e. matured.
Now, it is by no means certain that such a proposal will be implemented and the Scottish Sentencing Council is urging members of the public to respond to its consultation with their opinions on the matter.
It is certainly part of a wider strategy which fits in with attempts by the Scottish Government to reduce the numbers of people who are sent to prison each year. There is now perhaps a recognition that prison doesn’t always work. There has been a presumption operating for several years in Scotland, that people will not be sent to prison if the offence would normally be punished by a sentence of less than 6 months. Obviously, this presumption would be ignored if, for example, the offender was a person who persistently broke the rules.
Over the last year, this Blog has looked at a number of initiatives which have taken place which have been about taking different approaches to crime prevention or the rehabilitation of offenders.
In the Autumn (or Fall), I spoke to a group of students about an initiative called the “Call-In-Scheme” where Avon and Somerset Police in England were targeting first offenders aged between 16 and 21 who have been caught dealing drugs. The choice: go to court, be convicted with all the consequences this outcome will entail or go straight. Participants in the scheme were be selected by a panel. Predictably, such an approach sharply divided my audience.
Crime and kindness?
Last March, two American judges – Victoria Pratt and Ginger Lerner-Wren we’re invited to Scotland by Community Justice Scotland, a publicly funded body, where they were hoping to meet hundreds of people who deal with the Scottish criminal justice system.
The two judges were keen to emphasise that there should be more compassion in the criminal justice system when dealing with offenders. They pointed to impressive results in the United States – a New York court alone has seen a dramatic decrease of 20% in youth crime and a 10% reduction in crime overall by using radical methods to deal with offenders. One of the judges, Ginger Lerner-Wren established one of the first mental health courts anywhere in the world. The aim of this court (based in Florida) was to promote treatment of offenders as an alternative to traditional forms of punishment. Judge Pratt, on the other hand, specialises in “procedural justice” which works on the basis “that if people before the courts perceive they are being treated fairly and with dignity and respect, they’ll come to respect the courts, complete their sentences and be more likely to obey the law.”
The Glasgow Alcohol Court
This type of approach has already being piloted in Scotland: Sheriffs in Glasgow deal with cases where alcohol is a ‘contributory factor’ in crime. The Sheriff Alcohol Court has been operating since 2018 and its lifespan was extended in 2019. It now deals with domestic abuse cases involving alcohol. Punishments other than prison sentences are handed out by this court e.g. drug and alcohol treatment orders and community service orders. This approach recognises that criminals can turn their lives around and can become law abiding members of society. Being given a drug treatment order is not an easy option. Participants in schemes such as these are regularly tested and monitored. Break the rules and you will go to jail.
Age of criminal responsibility
In Scotland, in common with many penal systems around the world, we do use a person’s age to determine criminal responsibility. Currently, the age of criminal responsibility is 12 and there is a debate about whether this should be raised even higher. It is worth remembering that, for many years (until 2019 in fact), Scotland had one of the lowest ages of criminal responsibility anywhere in the Western World i.e. 8 years of age.
Somewhat mitigating this feature of Scottish criminal law was the fact that children were not tried in adult courts. The Children’s Hearing or Panel system was primarily set up for this very purpose. It was considered a revolutionary approach because it recognised that by stigmatising (and criminalising) children at a very early age, society could set them on a path from which there was no means of redemption. If you effectively abandoned a child at an early age, you were condemning them to a very grim future where they could (potentially) be in and out of prison for the rest of their lives.
The Scottish Sentencing Council’s proposal is very interesting and it will certainly form part of a lively discussion on how we continue to deal with crime in this country. The public now has 12 weeks to get involved in the consultation by giving their opinions on the matter.
It is important to appreciate that, under the proposals, judges will still be able to send people under 25 to prison if they think this is an appropriate punishment. What the proposals are allowing judges to do is to look more closely at a young person’s background e.g. mental health issues before sentence is passed. It remains the case that, where certain crimes are concerned, the imposition of a prison sentence will be most the appropriate action to take because the issue of public safety will be paramount. Clearly, someone like the notorious child killer Aaron Campbell, will not benefit from the proposals merely because they are under the age of 25.
A link to an article on the BBC News app about theScottish Sentencing Council’s proposal can be found below:
Draft sentencing guidelines say younger offenders should be treated differently because their brains are still developing.
Apparently, the Chinese have a proverb which translates something along the following lines: the Devil gives you your family; thank all Gods that you can choose your friends!
Quite an apt statement to lead me into my next blog. Families can be great; they can also be problematic. This point is emphasised by reference to a recent decision of the Appeal Court of the High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh.
In Michael Scott Ritchie v Her Majesty’s Advocate  HCJAC 7 HCA2019/327/X, the Appeal Court had to consider whether a Sheriff sitting at Elgin had misdirected the jury and, consequently, a miscarriage of justice had occurred.
The convicted person or appellant, Michael Ritchie, certainly thought so. He had appeared at Elgin Sheriff Court in 2019, charged on indictment in respect of the following matters:
“on 11 or 12 May 2018 you … did break into the dwelling house owned by [JR] … at Strathville, South Street, Forres, Moray and steal a quantity of jewellery, medals, coins and a box;
You … did commit this offence while on bail, having been granted bail on 15 June 2017 at Elgin Sheriff Court.”
He was convicted of the offences libelled above after the conclusion of a solemn (jury) trial and sentenced to 21 months in prison (3 months of which were for the bail violation).
Part of the evidence put forward to convict Ritchie by the Depute Procurator Fiscal (the prosecutor for the benefit of our non-Scottish readers) was a small black torch which was found at the locus of the crime. The item was not a possession of the householder. The torch contained traces of Ritchie’s DNA and he admitted that the item belonged to him. ‘Ritchie further admitted that he had been about 150 yards from the vicinity of the crime scene, but he strongly asserted that he was not guilty of any offence.
DNA – infallible evidence?
This is where the case gets quite interesting: Ritchie stated that although his DNA was on the torch, he had not committed the crime of house-breaking (or burglary as our friends from common law jurisdictions would say). He was not responsible for leaving it at the locus.
In other words, Ritchie was contending that, merely because his DNA happened to be on the torch found at the crime scene, this in itself was not conclusive evidence of his guilt. Ritchie, of course, was using a special defence available in Scots Law known as incrimination – he was claiming that someone else [his brother] had committed the offence. Interestingly, Ritchie’s brother had previous convictions for theft, but these had involved commercial premises.
He further asserted that he may have loaned a torch to his brother in the last month or so. He contended that the torch given to his brother was a black rubber one. Unfortunately, for Ritchie the torch found at the locus was a black metallic item.
When speaking to students about the issue of corroboration in criminal law, I often ask them which sources of evidence might be used by a prosecutor to help secure a conviction? DNA evidence will almost always feature in the range of answers that I am given.
… but I should urge caution: it’s not an infallible source of evidence. It has to be put in context and the onus (or burden) about what the DNA tells the Court i.e. whether it can point the way to the accused being guilty beyond reasonable doubt remains very much the responsibility of the prosecution (or Crown).
The role of the Sheriff and the jury
In a solemn trial, there is a strict division of responsibility: the jury is regarded as Master of the facts; whereas the Sheriff is Master of the law.
The jury will, therefore, determine the guilt or innocence of the accused based upon the evaluation of the evidence presented during the trial. The burden of proof rests with the prosecutor (representing the Crown or the State) in that s/he must convince the jury that the accused is guilty of the charge(s) contained in the indictment.
When summarising the evidence that has been presented to the court, the Sheriff must do so in a way that avoids the introduction of bias. The jury must be able to come to its own determination of the facts.
If guilt is established, it is then the task of the Sheriff to impose the appropriate sentence – usually at a subsequent hearing (for which there is no need for the jury to be present).
The main thrust of Ritchie’s appeal to the High Court in Edinburgh was that the Sheriff had misdirected the jury which led to him being wrongly convicted.
Sadly, for Ritchie, the Appeal Court did not agree.
Statements by the Procurator Fiscal Depute concerning the veracity of Ritchie’s responses during a Police interview did not suggest that the onus was now placed on the defence to prove his innocence. An accused in a Scottish criminal trial is under no obligation to prove his/her innocence. Innocence is, after all, presumed and it remains the task for the prosecution to prove guilt.
Lord Carloway, the Lord Justice General, giving the opinion of the Appeal Court noted:
‘… that the sheriff made it clear that the onus remained on the Crown and that there was no such onus on the defence. The sheriff’s reference to hypothetical situations was merited in the circumstances. Anything said by the PFD [Procurator Fiscal Depute] was adequately covered by the sheriff in her general directions on onus; the sheriff being in the best position to determine what was required in order to correct any misconception that the jury might have had from what the PFD had said.’
Regarding the presence of the torch (belonging to the accused) at the locus, this was in itself a ‘highly incriminatory’ fact. Significantly, Ritchie had not identified the item when presented during his trial as being the torch that he claimed to have previously supplied to his brother.
In reviewing the testimony of the expert witnesses who spoke to the DNA evidence at the trial, Lord Carloway had the following to say:
‘Expert evidence about the deposit of DNA was led by both the Crown and the defence. There were various scenarios put to the experts about how DNA can be deposited, how long it could remain, how it could be transferred and whether it was primary or secondary. The sheriff described all of this evidence as essentially common sense. There was, however, a disagreement between the experts in relation to four peaks, which had been identified from the DNA print-out upon testing.’
The four peaks could either be artefacts (the Crown) or DNA belonging to an unknown person or persons (the defence).
The Crown submitted in its argument to the Appeal Court that the Sheriff had correctly emphasised to the jury “to scrutinise the evidence with care and be satisfied that there was an evidential basis for the submissions which had been made to them.”
Taking all of the above matters into consideration, there was no evidence to suggest that Michael Ritchie had suffered a miscarriage of justice and his appeal was refused.
A link to the judgement of the Appeal Court can be found below: