The love that dared not speak its name

Thanks to @ChouetteLaura for making this photo available freely on @unsplash 🎁

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.

https://edition.independent.co.uk/editions/uk.co.independent.issue.250520/data/9525296/index.html

The long and winding road

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 [2003] 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.

Related Blog Articles:

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2020/02/02/the-only-gay-in-the-village/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2020/01/04/pansexual/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/12/31/civil-partner-i-do/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/12/08/different-standards/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/12/06/biased-blood/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/10/04/a-very-civil-partnership/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/02/20/love-and-marriage/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/02/08/the-gay-cake-row/

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 25 May 2020

What a difference a day makes …

Photo by Jim Wilson on Unsplash

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:

www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-52111412

Related Blog articles:

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2020/03/31/trial-without-jury/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2020/03/23/tholing-his-assize-alex-salmond-former-scottish-first-minister-acquitted-of-13-charges-of-sexual-offences-some-reflections-on-criminal-prosecutions-in-scotland-the-burden-of-proof-required-to-secu

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2020/02/15/oh-brother/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/05/02/consent/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/02/25/the-jury/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2020/03/15/kaboom/

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 1 April 2020

Trial without jury?

Screen capture by Seán J Crossan

I seem to be on a theme today due to COVID-19.

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).

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2000/jan/21/jurytrials.law2

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/labour-rebels-to-ambush-blair-over-trial-by-jury-105088.html

Conclusion

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.”

Related Blog articles:

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2020/03/23/tholing-his-assize-alex-salmond-former-scottish-first-minister-acquitted-of-13-charges-of-sexual-offences-some-reflections-on-criminal-prosecutions-in-scotland-the-burden-of-proof-required-to-secu

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2020/02/15/oh-brother/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/05/02/consent/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/02/25/the-jury/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2020/03/15/kaboom/

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 31 March 2020

Assault!

red white and black textile
Photo by Martin Sanchez on Unsplash

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:

http://news.sky.com/story/coronavirus-nhs-staff-police-and-public-being-coughed-on-by-people-claiming-to-have-covid-19-11965058

http://news.sky.com/story/coronavirus-man-who-spat-on-police-while-claiming-he-had-coronovairus-is-jailed-11967349

http://news.sky.com/story/coronavirus-police-want-spit-guards-to-protect-officers-from-vile-behaviour-11969529

http://news.sky.com/story/coronavirus-policewoman-bitten-on-the-arm-while-explaining-covid-19-lockdown-rules-11971769

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):

http://news.sky.com/story/coronavirus-two-charged-with-terror-offences-over-threats-to-spread-covid-19-11970802

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 31 March; 6 & 11 April 2020

Mr Salmond tholes his assize

Screen capture by Seán J Crossan from BBC Scotland’s website

Strange words i.e. uncommon: thole and assize.

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
  • Not proven
  • Guilty

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 to prove 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.

Alex Salmond cleared of all sexual assault charges

BBC Scotland has also been running a podcast about the Salmond trial (please see link below)

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0864016/episodes/downloads

Related Blog articles:

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2020/02/15/oh-brother/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/03/01/corroboration/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2020/01/09/down-with-corroboration-i-say/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/04/22/scrap-corroboration/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/05/02/consent/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/02/25/the-jury/https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/12/28/alexa-theres-been-a-murder/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/02/10/the-burden-of-proof/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2020/03/15/kaboom/

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 23 March 2020

Go to jail?

Photo by 🇨🇭 Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum on Unsplash

Young offenders?

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.

https://consultations.scottishsentencingcouncil.org.uk/ssc/young-people/

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.

Conclusion

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.

Scottish courts urged not to jail ‘immature’ under-25s

Related Blog Articles:

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/05/08/the-age-of-criminal-responsibility/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/02/27/criminal-responsibility/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/03/12/crime-and-kindness/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/02/19/dealing-with-alcohol-abuse/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/08/30/once-a-criminal/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/03/04/commit-the-crime-do-the-time/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/04/02/victims-voices/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/06/13/doing-time/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/03/22/life-should-mean-life/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2017/04/04/scottish-criminal-appeals/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/01/29/crime-and-punishment-in-scotland/

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 28 February 2020

For those in peril on the sea

Photo by Lawrence Hookham on Unsplash

The avoidable death of Annang Neurtey

As someone who works more in the civil rather than the criminal legal tradition, I tend to focus more on the outcome of obtaining damages or compensation for the victim of an industrial or work-place accident.

It’s simply a matter of horses for courses i.e. you stick to what you know or what you’re trained to do. Admittedly, most of the victims of industrial accidents that I have represented are perhaps more focused on obtaining compensation for their injuries – especially if these are life changing. Any criminal liability that the employer may have is purely incidental i.e. something of a side issue. Then again, I suppose you could say that about most civil actions where the criminality of the pursuer remains firmly in the background (think dangerous and careless driving incidents).

The victim of a work-place delict (or tort) may get some satisfaction from their employer or its officers and managers appearing in the dock at a subsequent criminal trial, but this is unlikely to be satisfying in the long term. It will not allow them to get their lives back on track or to move on; payment of compensation is perhaps a more satisfactory conclusion to things. I make that last statement fully in the knowledge that no amount of money can truly give victims back what they have lost.

Yet, every so often, I come across a story or an incident which underlines the importance of criminal law regarding industrial or work-place accidents.

In 2015, one such incident occurred onboard Aquarius, a fishing trawler which operated out of the North East Scottish fishing port of Banff. Serious failings in the operation of the vessel led to the death of a crewman. The victim, 47 year old, Annang Neurtey from Ghana, was swept overboard: his body has never been recovered – adding immensely to the grief of his family.

Anyone who has read Sebastian Junger’s 1997 novel, The Perfect Storm (or viewed the film adaptation of 2000) will be readily familiar with the dangers that fishing folk face at sea. That said, the tragedy which befell Annang Neurtey was entirely avoidable. If the skipper of the Aquarius had properly supervised the crew and followed basic safety procedures, the accident would not have occurred.

Following Mr Neurtey’s death, MB Aquarius Ltd of Buckie, the company which owned and operated the vessel, was investigated by Police Scotland and the Marine and Coastguard Agency. The conclusions reached by investigators were that basic risk assessments had not been properly carried out and that the employer had failed to put a safe system of working in place.

At a subsequent criminal prosecution against Mr Neurtey’s employer for health and safety breaches at Aberdeen Sheriff Court, the company pleaded guilty to breaches of marine safety laws, namely, Regulation 5(1) of the Merchant Shipping and Fishing Vessels (Health and Safety at Work) Regulations 1997 and Sections 85 and 86 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995.

A fine of £50,000 was imposed on the employer – it would have been £75,000 had an early plea of guilty not been entered by the company.

Mr Neurtey’s family will doubtless be contemplating a civil action for recovery of damages – unless of course his employer does the decent thing and quickly settles such a claim.

A link to the Marine and Coastguard Agency’s Report of its findings concerning Mr Neurtey’s death can be found below:

https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/57f3c2d7ed915d06fa000030/MAIBInvReport18_2016.pdf

A link to an article in the The Press & Journal about the trial can be found below:

https://www.pressandjournal.co.uk/fp/news/aberdeen/2011786/buckie-based-fishing-company-fined-50000-following-death-of-crew-member/

Those dark satanic mills …

Have concerns about health and safety gone mad? The former British Prime Minister, David Cameron certainly thought so when his Coalition Government (2010-15) introduced the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 (in particular, Section 69 of the said legislation) which removed the right to bring a civil claim for breaches of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.

It does not mean that employees can no longer bring a civil claim if an employer breaches its duty of care, but significantly claimants will no longer benefit from the presumption of strict liability previously imposed on organisations. Since this reform, it will be essential for claimants to prove negligence on the part of their employers for breaches of health and safety.

We would, however, do well to remember our history: concerns about health and safety were often ignored in the not so distant past.

The phrase “dark satanic mills” comes from the poem, And did those feet in ancient time by William Blake. The phrase has been interpreted as a searing indictment of the wickedness and exploitative practices of 19th Century British industrialists who most certainly put profit before people. This is why rare individuals such as the Welsh born industrialist, Robert Owen and his New Lanark Mills we’re regarded as truly radical and progressive employers.

The words of Blake’s poem were later put to music by the composer, Hubert Parry, and is better known as Jerusalem – an alternative English National Anthem for many because of its rallying call for social justice for the poor and the oppressed.

Over time, admittedly, the UK Parliament did intervene by bringing in legislation to curb some of the frankly dangerous and disreputable practices which had been tolerated in British factories, shipyards and mines. With the industrial revolution, Britain did indeed become the ‘workshop of the world’, but this accolade disguised the terrible human cost which could be measured in countless deaths, terrible injuries and overwhelmingly misery.

Some months ago, I saw a photograph by Bill Brandt in The Independent’s Saturday Magazine which documented life in an East Durham mining community. I was pretty shocked by what I saw: the houses of the miners had no windows. Think of it: these workers spent their days down the pit in almost total darkness. More shocking, was the fact that Brandt had taken the photograph as recently as 1937.

Photograph by Bill Brandt (1937)

Yet surely, the bad old days are long gone? The British work-place has become a much safer place? Undoubtedly, as we shall see, employers have become much more aware of their responsibilities to their employees and workers in respect of the issue of health and safety.

That said, if you look at the info graphic produced below from the UK Health and Safety Executive, poor conditions and practices in British work-places still result in unacceptably high levels of injuries and illness – in 2019!

Key facts for Great Britain 2019
Source: http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/

Recently, Amazon, the global internet retailer, received very unwelcome media attention about the number of industrial injuries which have occurred in its UK premises. It’s probably fair to say that Amazon UK does not enjoy a particularly good reputation amongst trade unions regarding its employment practices and the recent media stories only compound this state of affairs.

Links to stories about Amazon UK on Sky News and Channel 4 News can be found below:

http://news.sky.com/story/hellish-conditions-at-amazon-warehouses-seriously-hurt-hundreds-11936881

https://youtu.be/gYUJjpIxkCU

Health and Safety at Work Act 1974

It is worth noting that the employer’s common law duties which aim to protect the health and safety of employees establishes a regime of civil liability. In other words, should the employer breach these duties, he will most likely face a civil action by the injured employee who will be attempting to recover compensation.

The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, on the other hand, makes an employers criminally liable if they fail to take reasonably practicable steps to protect the health and safety of their employees. An employer will, therefore, face penalties in a criminal court for breaches of the Act.

The Health and Safety (Offences) Act 2008

The provisions of this Act came into force on 16 January 2009 and apply to offences committed after this date by employers. Scottish criminal courts will now have the power to impose maximum fines of £20,000 on employers who breach health and safety rules. In the most serious cases where health and safety rules have been breached or ignored, the courts may also have the right to imprison those responsible.

The Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010

Sections 65-68 of the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010 should make it easier for organisations to face prosecution in Scotland in relation to allegations of criminal wrongdoing. According to Section 65, the term “organisation” applies to any of the following bodies:

  • a body corporate;
  • an unincorporated association;
  • a partnership;
  • a body of trustees;
  • a government department;
  • a part of the Scottish Administration;
  • any other entity which is not an individual

Such proceedings against organisations may be on indictment (Section 66) or on complaint (Section 67).

For a long time, it has been argued that an organisational culture which promotes lax practices or downright dangerous behaviour can lead to the commission of criminal offences. This an attempt to make organisations more accountable under the criminal law for conduct which causes harm to members of the public.

Overall, this means that an employer could face both a criminal action and a civil action for damages where he has neglected to obey the criminal law and the common law in respect of the employee’s health and safety.

Conclusion

If only we need reminding that health and safety remains a major issue in the work-place, we need only look to a story from Scotland which appeared in national media outlets just this week.

Workers at the Mossmorran and Ineos chemical plants took unauthorised industrial action (wildcat strikes) which was motivated by serious concerns about the lack of health and safety in the work-place. Happily, the employers seem to be listening to the concerns and the employees are now back at work.

Failure by employers to take health and safety issues seriously can leave themselves open to both civil and criminal liability. During Britain’s Industrial Revolution (from the 18th to the early 20th Centuries), it’s true to say that there was no such thing as a culture of health and safety in the work-place. Industrialists like Robert Owen were remarkable because they broke with the paradigm of British industrial practice i.e. workers were resources to be used up and tossed aside when no longer needed.

The growth of the trade union movement and the emergence of the British Labour Party (itself a creation of the union movement) led to pressure for change and tangible improvements were made to working practices. Despite these advances, cases such as the death of Annang Neurtey and the figures from the Health and Safety Executive surely caution us against complacency.

Links to reports on the BBC Scotland website about the industrial action can be found below:

Union GMB said the workers had “continuously raised their concerns about conditions and safety on-site”.

Mossmorran: Walkout at chemical plant over working conditions

Union officials said that concerns over health and safety and pay had been resolved following talks.

Mossmorran: Workers to return after wildcat strike in Fife

Related Blog Articles:

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/10/23/a-hard-days-night/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/04/19/dont-stop-the-music/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/02/22/stress-kills/

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 21 February 2020

Oh brother!

Photo by Seán J Crossan (Card design by M&S)

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 [2020] 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 Appeal

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:

https://www.scotcourts.gov.uk/docs/default-source/cos-general-docs/pdf-docs-for-opinions/2020hcjac7.pdf?sfvrsn=0

Related Blog Articles:

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2020/01/09/down-with-corroboration-i-say/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2020/01/02/presumption-of-innocence/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/04/22/scrap-corroboration/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/12/28/alexa-theres-been-a-murder/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/03/01/corroboration/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2017/04/04/scottish-criminal-appeals/

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 15 February 2020

Criminal evidence & vulnerable witnesses

Photo by Marco Albuquerque on Unsplash

Today, the Vulnerable Witnesses (Criminal Evidence) Scotland Act 2019 comes into force.

This piece of legislation, passed by the Scottish Parliament, was given Royal Assent in June 2019.

It represents the introduction of an innovative change to Scots criminal law. The new law will permit vulnerable witnesses to pre-record their evidence in advance of trial so that they will not be required to appear in court in person.

According to a Scottish Government press release (see link below), a vulnerable witness is defined in the following terms:

‘[if] they are likely to suffer significant risk of harm as a result of giving evidence. This includes victims of sexual assault, domestic abuse, trafficking and stalking, and those under the age of 18.’

https://www.gov.scot/policies/victims-and-witnesses/pre-recording-of-evidence-criminal-trials/

For children aged under 18, in particular, the Act permits the evidence to be taken by commissioner. This procedure will be disregarded if it would significantly prejudice the interests of justice.

The Scottish Government has noted that the new legislation consolidates changes that were made in 2014 to safeguard the rights of vulnerable witnesses i.e. the Witnesses and Victims (Scotland) Act 2014.

Links to both pieces of legislation can be found below:

http://www.legislation.gov.uk/asp/2014/1/contents

http://www.legislation.gov.uk/asp/2019/8/enacted

Related Blog Article:

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/03/20/vulnerable-witnesses/

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 20 January 2020

Down with corroboration (I say)!

Photo by Andy T on Unsplash

Who’s ‘I’? Amanda Pinto – that’s who, but more about her later.

In Scottish criminal procedure, we place a great deal of emphasis on the principle of corroboration. In a criminal trial, the prosecutor must prove that the accused is guilty of a crime beyond  reasonable doubt. This is a very strict burden and, in Scotland, the prosecution achieves this standard by corroborating its evidence against the accused. Corroboration means that there must be at least two independent sources of evidence such as witness testimony and the use of expert and forensic evidence. Reasonable doubt is a nagging doubt which would lead a reasonable person to the conclusion that it would be unsafe and unjust to find the accused guilty.

Not every legal system places such importance on the principle of corroboration: some of our English brethren seem (very) disinclined to follow us.

This week, distaste for corroboration has been voiced somewhat forcefully by Amanda Pinto QC, the incoming Chairperson of the Bar Council of England and Wales (the English equivalent of the Faculty of Advocates). Ms Pinto represents some 16,000 barristers and her views are therefore not to be dismissed easily.

Of particular concern to Ms Pinto seems to be UK Government proposals to introduce an element of corroboration into English criminal legal practice. Speaking to Jonathan Ames of The Times (of London), her main objection to the introduction of corroboration appears to be in relation to rape trials:

We’ve rightly come away from requiring corroboration [in England and Wales],” she says. “Because if you require corroboration in something that is typically between two people, then you restrict access for justice for some victims entirely.

Several years ago in Scotland, we also had a discussion on the merits of the continued use of corroboration in criminal proceedings. Lord Carloway (now the Lord Justice General), Police Scotland and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service were of the opinion that this requirement should be abolished. Significantly, the Faculty of Advocates and the Law Society of Scotland were opposed to this development. Warnings of possible miscarriages of justice were raised if this was allowed to happen. Corroboration was retained.

Nore recently (in 2019), groups representing survivors of sexual abuse made powerful and emotional submissions to the Scottish Parliament arguing that the requirement of corroboration be abolished. We still have the principle in place in Scotland.

Responding to these submissions by abuse survivors, Brian McConnochie QC, a senior member of the Faculty of Advocates went on record defending the current evidential requirement:

I know that some people consider that corroboration is something which we ought to abandon or abolish, and as often as not the argument is given that it should be abolished because nobody else has it. I’ve never been convinced by that argument. We went through a process where it was discussed at significant and considerable length, and at the end of that process the decision was taken that it should go no further.”

James Wolffe QC, the current Lord Advocate (head of the Scottish prosecution service) has openly stated that a review of corroboration could be on the cards, but Gordon Jackson QC, current Dean of the Faculty of Advocates has voiced the Faculty’s continuing opposition to such a development:

https://www.scottishlegal.com/article/lord-advocate-hints-at-renewed-attack-on-corroboration

Related Blog Articles:

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/04/22/scrap-corroboration/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/03/01/corroboration/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/12/28/alexa-theres-been-a-murder/

Copyright – Seán J Crossan, 9 January 2020