Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill has welcomed the passing of new legislation designed to overcome the “absurd situation” in which life prisoners become eligible for parole earlier than those serving sentences of a fixed length.
Members of the Scottish Parliament yesterday afternoon voted to implement the Criminal Cases (Punishment and Review) (Scotland) Bill aimed at eradicating the legal loophole.
Official publication of legal grounds compiled by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC) on which convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Al-Megrahi was entitled to a second appeal has also been sanctioned under the changes, three months after a national Sunday newspaper released the document into the public domain.
The eligibility for parole anomaly emerged last year when Edinburgh man Morris Petch saw his minimum sentence for raping two girls reduced to eight years by the High Court of Justiciary following a conviction in 2007. A second decision by appeal judges to halve the minimum term handed down to Robert Foye, who raped a teenage schoolgirl after absconding from Castle Huntley open prison, heightened calls for reform.
The judgments opened the door for prisoners given a discretionary life sentence or Order for Lifelong Restriction (OLR) to apply to become eligible for parole earlier than those serving sentences of a fixed length, albeit MacAskill provided reassurance that no prisoner had been released from jail as a consequence of the judgement.
Under the bill passed today, the courts will regain the discretion to set a ‘punishment part’ of those sentences that it considers appropriate in all the circumstances of a particular case.
MacAskill said: “This is a complex piece of legislation but I am delighted it has now been passed by the Scottish Parliament. It closes a legal loophole caused by a recent judgement (Petch and Foye) which created an absurd situation where prisoners serving life sentences were able to qualify for parole earlier than those not serving life. No sensible person would endorse that approach.
“Appeal judges who made the ruling called on the Scottish Parliament to intervene with “a clear, well-considered legislative solution” and we have quickly responded to correct this anomaly .
“Protecting the public and punishing serious offenders is the priority here and the passing of this Bill will now ensure that our courts have the sentencing powers they need to make sure that punishment is always appropriate to the offender’s crime. Parole should certainly not be considered for prisoners who have not fulfilled what the court deems to be an adequate period of punishment.
“It should be noted that no prisoner has been released from prison as a result of the Petch and Foye judgement as the Parole Board plays an important role in assessing the risk individual offenders pose – if there is any question of them being a danger to the public they will remain behind bars.
“However, the pain and suffering caused, particularly to victims and their families when they hear that courts are not able to punish serious offenders appropriately can be deeply traumatic and I hope this legislation will bring reassurance that public safety is the absolute priority.”
Measures to allow disclosure of information obtained by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC) concerning cases referred to the High Court where an appeal has been abandoned or has fallen will also take effect, allowing official publication of material pertaining to the case of Al-Megrahi.
Despite the move being made largely redundant by the Sunday Herald’s decision to publish the commission’s 821-page report in March, MacAskill stressed the long-term significance of the step.
He added: “The second part of the Bill builds on the Scottish Government’s track record of openness and transparency in response to the wide ranging public interest in the Al-Megrahi case. Although the publication of the Al-Megrahi case Statement of Reasons earlier this year by a newspaper has largely overtaken this part of the Bill, this legislation does demonstrate our commitment to do all we can to enable the release of information in this case.
“Looking to the future, the Bill puts in place a framework that will enable, as far as possible within devolved competence, the disclosure of information by the SCCRC in cases where an appeal has been abandoned or has fallen.”