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– think the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications etc (Scotland) Act 2012 which was eventually repealed on 20 April 2018.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.
Look at the above image: the crime of vandalism? Almost definitely, but put it into context and a more sinister picture emerges that of sectarianism.
The building in the picture is a meeting place of the Loyal Orange Order and it has been spray painted with blatantly offensive graffiti which is diametrically opposed to everything that the Order stands for i.e. the unity of the British State, upholding Protestant religious values and support for the British monarchy. This is not just an act of vandalism: it is also a hate crime; an example of sectarianism.
The vandals, if ever caught, may also incur civil liability for their actions. Section 10 of the Equality Act 2010 covers the protected characteristic of religion and philosophical beliefs.
Sadly, these types of incidents can be all too common and both sides of the sectarian divide can be guilty of such behaviour. In January 2019, a young man admitted to a sectarian offence at Glasgow Sheriff Court. While attending an Orange Walk, Bradley White spat on a Catholic priest, Canon Tom White, who was standing at the door of St Alphonsus’ Church when the parade passed by. The incident gained a lot of media attention.
A sheriff condemned the “disgusting” assault, which took place outside a Glasgow church as an Orange walk went past.
The Scottish Parliament (which first sat in 1999) was keen to address the issue of sectarianism and finally did so by passing the much maligned Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012.
The 2012 Act acknowledged that a large part of sectarian division was expressed through the medium of football with reports of disorder at stadia and offensive comments being circulated on social media.
It was also the fact that before the 2012 Act was introduced, Scots Law had an existing arsenal upon which to draw when tackling hate crimes of a sectarian nature, namely:
Common law offences
Criminal Law (Consolidation) (Scotland) Act 1995
Crime and Disorder Act 1998
Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2003
The 2012 legislation has since been repealed by the Scottish Parliament on the grounds that it was difficult to operate and that it had significantly restricted freedom of speech.
That said, the Scottish Government has not been prepared to leave this area alone and it instructed Lord Bracadale, a retired Senator of the College of Justice to chair an inquiry into the current state of hate crime laws in Scotland.
A link to Lord Bracadale’s recommendations can be found below:
Although, the United Kingdom is regarded as a largely secular society in that the majority of its citizens no longer profess allegiance to a particular religion, many of the its people come from a distinct religious tradition. Yet, the British State itself has not caught up with these social trends: Queen Elizabeth II is the Supreme Governor of the established Church, the Church of England; and Anglican Bishops still sit in the House of Lords deliberating on and making laws for the country.
According to the British Social Attitudes Survey of 2018, more than 50% of people in Britain stated that they had no religious beliefs.
A link to an article in The Guardian about this aspect of the Survey can be found below:
Since the events of the Protestant Reformation in 16th Century, religious and political tensions have been a hallmark of British and Irish culture and society.
England, Scotland and Wales became Protestant countries while Ireland remained overwhelmingly Roman Catholic in its religious outlook.
To proclaim yourself as a Protestant was to pledge your loyalty to the Scottish and English Crowns (there was not yet a United Kingdom, although there was a union of the two Crowns in 1603).
To assert your Catholicism was often viewed as disloyal and treasonous. It could also mean that you could be subjected to criminal sanctions e.g. fines, confiscation of property, imprisonment and even the death penalty.
The Reformation raised Ireland’s already tense and problematic relationship with England to new heights (and later Scotland when James I became King of England).
Suspicion about Roman Catholics’ loyalties were further exacerbated as a result of the Gunpowder Plot of 5 November 1605. Robert Catesby, Guy Fawkes, Thomas Percy and their co-conspirators were fanatical Roman Catholics who wanted to kill the King and his key Ministers by blowing up the State opening of Parliament. Had the Plot been successful, plans were in hand to re-establish Catholicism as the religion of the embryonic British State.
Sectarianism in Scotland
Historically, religious discrimination or sectarianism in Scotland has been a big problem and has often been referred to as ‘Scotland’s shame’. These tensions really began to surface during the Irish Potato Famine (an Gorta Mór) in the 1840s. Thousands of Irish people – who were overwhelmingly members of the Catholic Church – left their homes and settled in Scotland in search of work and to escape hunger.
This huge influx caused tensions with the local Scottish, Protestant communities. In Glasgow in 1814, there was just one priest – Reverend Andrew Scott – serving the Catholic community. Father Scott supervised the building of St Andrew’s RC Cathedral on Glasgow’s Clyde Street in order to minister to his “vast Irish flock” (James Handley: The Irish in Scotland (1964): 127).
In the years following, many Irish continued to come to Scotland (and other parts of the UK) in search of work. Caused huge social tensions and Irish people were often the target of institutionalised discrimination. In Scotland, this discrimination always had a religious dimension – better known as sectarianism.
Discrimination ran right through Scottish society: Catholics and Protestants went to different schools, attended different churches, lived in separate neighbourhoods and, significantly, supported different football teams e.g. in Glasgow, Catholics supported Celtic FC and Protestants supported Rangers FC; in Edinburgh, Catholics supported Hibernian FC while Protestants supported Heart of Midlothian FC; and in Dundee, Catholics supported Dundee United whereas Protestants supported Dundee FC.
Although religious participation in Scotland has decreased significantly – in line with trends across the UK generally – the echoes of religious traditions can still be heard. In Glasgow and west-central Scotland (where Irish immigration was most heavily concentrated), support for Celtic and Rangers Football Clubs is still a pretty good indication of a person’s ethnic and religious origins.
The Scottish Parliament and Government has tried to take a lead in combating sectarianism – not always successfully. To the credit of the Government and Parliament, they are not prepared to leave the matter and Lord Bracadale’s recommendations on updating existing Scottish hate crime laws are both welcome and timely.
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 latest legal development is the Scottish Government’s attempt to deal with the crisis by passing an emergency Bill through the Scottish Parliament in one day. The Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill undoubtedly contains welcome measures e.g. protection for tenants against eviction by their landlords throughout the duration of the crisis.
The relevant provisions of the Bill are contained in Section 11(1) and (4) respectively and are as follows:
“The Scottish Ministers may by regulations provide that trials on indictment are to be conducted by the court sitting without a jury.”
This would, in effect, create a situation where a Sheriff or a Lord Commissioner of Justiciary in a solemn trial was both Master of the Law and Master of fact.
Not everyone is welcoming the Bill in its entirety: the Scottish Criminal Bar Association has been extremely critical of proposals which would, in particular, permit the temporary abolition of trial by jury (solemn trials).
Prominent members of the Scottish National Party, such as Joanna Cherry QC MP, have stated their extremely strong opposition to the proposals (see Tweet below):
Ronnie Renucci QC, Chair of the Scottish Criminal Bar Association, issued the following statement attacking the Bill’s provisions in relation to jury trials:
“The proposals in this bill include attacks on principles that have been built over 600 years and are at the very cornerstone of Scotland’s criminal justice system and democratic tradition. … Any changes, however temporary, should not erode important principles of our legal system which would have the effect of undermining or ignoring the citizen’s rights to justice. They should not at a stroke remove the fundamental principle of the right of those citizens charged with serious offences to a trial by a jury of their peers within a reasonable time. …The SCBA believes that these draconian measures seeking to bring about seismic changes to our system of justice are premature, disproportionate and ill-advised. They are at best a knee-jerk reaction to an as yet unquantified problem instigated by panic or at worst, something far more sinister.”
As Mr Renucci also points out in his statement, juries have been in existence in Scotland since the reign of King Alexander II (1214-49). Even during the Second World War, the practice of trial by jury continued – albeit restricted to 7 jurors as opposed to the usual number of 15.
I should, of course, point out that the vast majority of criminal trials (95%) in Scotland are conducted in the lower criminal courts – the Justice of the Peace and Sheriff Courts – under summary procedure. In England and Wales, the figures are similar. Yet, the emotional attachment to the right of trial by jury remains very strong in both jurisdictions.
We should not, however, ignore or downplay the value of solemn trials in that they permit someone who is accused of serious criminal offences (e.g. former Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond) to be tried by a jury of his/her peers. A
There are unhappy precedents for restricting the right to trial by jury.
In Northern Ireland, during the period known euphemistically as ‘The Troubles‘, the Diplock Courts were established under the provisions of the Northern Ireland Act 1973. This legislation abolished the right to trial by jury for terrorism related offences. The rationale behind this development was to curb juror intimidation by paramilitary organisations such as the Provisional IRA and the Ulster Defence Association. These courts, where one judge presided, were highly controversial. They were only abolished comparatively recently as a result of the introduction of the Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Act 2007.
During the first and second terms of the Blair Government (1997-2001 and 2001-2005 respectively), attempts were made to curtail the right to trial by jury in England and Wales. This would have applied to offences triable either way i.e. they could be tried under summary procedure or on indictment. In such situations, it is the choice of the accused (the defendant) to decide which sort of trial they should face – trial by magistrates or trial by jury. The Blair Government’s proposals were not welcomed and eventually sank beneath the waves of protest from a number of Mr Blair’s own MPs, members of the House of Lords, the Law Society and the Bar Council (to name but a few opponents).
Some 20 years ago, when Prime Minister Blair’s Government proposed restrictions on the right to trial by jury, the words of Lord Devlin, a former Law Lord, were often quoted. Lord Devlin’s remarks are worth repeating in the current context:
“…trial by jury is more than an instrument of Justice and more than one wheel of the constitution: it is the lamp that shows that freedom lives.”
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):