Q&A with Justice Secretary Michael Matheson

Written by Staff reporter on 16 April 2018 in Inside Politics

Holyrood asks Michael Matheson, Cabinet Secretary for Justice, about some of the key issues on the justice agenda

Michael Matheson: Picture credit - Scottish Government/Holyrood

Has the repeal of the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act led you to rethink how you tackle sectarianism?

As the Minister for Community Safety has said, we think the opposition acted irresponsibly in repealing legislation which Scotland’s police and prosecutors have been using to bring to justice those who commit offences that the vast majority of people, including most football supporters, consider to be unacceptable.  

However, we have always said that legislation, and enforcement of the law alone, is only one aspect of tackling the issue. While working to minimise the negative impact that repeal is likely to have, we remain focused on building on the education and preventative work across Scotland that we’ve supported with unprecedented investment of £13.5 million since 2012.

Lord Bracadale will shortly publish his independent review of hate crime legislation in Scotland. The recommendations from this review will help inform our next steps so we can ensure the law protects people from hate crime in all its forms, including sectarian prejudice and hatred.

Are you pushing ahead with the merger of BTP with Police Scotland for idealistic reasons despite evidence that it could be problematic?

We are working with the UK Government to ensure the legislation passed by the Scottish Parliament last year is implemented as effectively as possible, providing an enhanced service to both the rail industry and travelling public. All parties backed the devolution of the transport policing to Scotland in 2015 and integration has been a policy of ours since 2011.
Integration will provide a single command structure, ensuring seamless access to wider support facilities and specialist resources. Integration will also ensure that railway policing in Scotland is accountable to the people of Scotland through the SPA and ultimately the Scottish Parliament.

 

While reporting of rape is up, the conviction rate is down in the latest crime statistics. Do you think this can be improved without abolishing corroboration?

Abolishing the corroboration rule was proposed because it was considered that the rule could prevent victims of crimes committed in private – such as sexual offences and domestic abuse – from accessing justice. That was the primary focus rather than increasing the conviction rate for those offences. 
I still have concerns about the effect that this rule is having in pursuing criminal cases involving many vulnerable victims. But there would need to be greater consensus about how to deliver that change and this must include considering any additional safeguards required so our criminal justice system remains balanced fairly.

That is why we are taking forward many of the recommendations from Lord Bonomy’s post-corroboration safeguards review, including jury research. The review group recommended jury research as they were unable to make any specific recommendations to the jury system due to a lack of research on the unique elements of Scottish juries, namely, the simple majority, jury size and three verdicts. That research is due to be completed in the autumn of next year and it would be wrong to pre-judge what package of reforms may be appropriate in the future in advance of those findings.

Notwithstanding that ongoing work, I have made it one of my priorities to work with partners across public services and the third sector to ensure that victims of rape and other sexual crimes not only receive the right support, but actually feel supported from the very moment they need it. For example, I recently approved increased funding to Rape Crisis Scotland to allow them to expand their National Advocacy Project. An evaluation of the pilot found that women supported by the project had described that as ‘life-changing’.

 

Are you confident that it will be possible to get convictions for domestic violence involving coercive or controlling behaviour with the requirement for corroboration?

Any offence in Scots law requires to be proven by corroborative evidence. This can present a challenge when dealing with offences like domestic abuse, which often occur in private, and where there are unlikely to be other witnesses.

However, the new offence of domestic abuse is intended to better reflect the actual experience of victims of domestic abuse who can often experience a long-term pattern of abusive behaviour, rather than prosecuting individual incidents of, for example, assault or threatening or abusive behaviour, which is how the existing law operates.  

The new legislation, which was endorsed by all parties, may also make it easier to prosecute in those cases where there is corroborated evidence of the ongoing psychological abuse but not of any individual incidents of threatening or violent behaviour. Thankfully, attitudes towards domestic abuse have changed considerably, even since the parliament was established in 1999.

There has been a move towards closer working between justice and health and education recently.What outcomes are you aiming for from that? 

Working across the different areas of government is vital, particularly as the most vulnerable people often find themselves in the gaps between services. For example, it is often police that members of the public will contact when people are in mental health distress, especially if there is violence or alcohol involved. Police officers have a terrific sense of duty to people in crisis – but is a police car the most appropriate response to someone in mental health distress? 

Another example is what we can do in prisons. If the person’s behaviour is driven at least in part by a health condition, such as drug addiction or mental health issues, then healthcare in prison can represent a real opportunity. 

Joining up our public services is the key to addressing this; that’s why the Health-Justice Improvement collaborative has been set up, to bring together the key decision-makers across both sectors to identify real, tangible improvements that can be made.

Education services, too, are vital to our agenda on prevention. A key outcome of this collaborative work is to prevent and mitigate adverse childhood experiences – something featured in the ‘Justice in Scotland: Vision and Priorities’ strategy that I launched last summer, and also in the current Programme for Government.

We know there is a strong body of evidence that shows the links between childhood adversity and criminalisation and victimisation in adulthood. Addressing this is an important challenge, and one which requires a partnership approach.

 

There is still something of a postcode lottery in the move towards more community-based sentences. How does that change?

There is no postcode lottery in terms of community sentences. We introduced community payback orders (CPOs) in 2011 and they have helped to bring Scotland’s reconviction rates to an 18-year low.  The latest figures show that individuals released from a custodial sentence of 12 months or less are reconvicted almost twice as often as those given a CPO.

A review of CPOs in 2015 showed that they are viewed with a degree of confidence by most sheriffs and are seen as an improvement on previous community sentences.  Almost six million hours of unpaid work have been carried out by individuals on CPOs since they were introduced, delivering real benefits to communities across Scotland.  

And our funding for criminal justice social work is at record levels – around £100 million. This includes an additional £4 million ring-fenced for community sentences in each of the last two years, which we increased to £5.5 million in the budget for next year.

 

What did it feel like having so many calls for your head over issues with Police Scotland and the SPA? 

Public and parliamentary scrutiny is a key aspect of our democratic system. It is right that parliamentarians expect me to account for my actions as a Scottish Government minister. 
I have been consistently clear that questioning the process of the SPA’s decision-making in inviting the former chief constable to resume his duties in November was the right thing to do. The deficiencies that were identified in the process were completely unacceptable and I would have rightly been criticised if I had not questioned the basis for the SPA board’s proposal at that time. 

 

Where do you see the key battlegrounds being in justice in the near future?

‘Vision and Priorities’ recognises that Scotland has become a safer place. However, it clearly acknowledges a number of significant ongoing and future challenges for justice. That includes the concentration of crime and victimisation, including violence, in our poorest communities; the impact of the internet and new technologies on the scale and nature of cybercrime, including sexual crime; and the impact of adverse childhood experiences and poor mental and physical health on those in contact with our justice system. 
Another area which the ‘Vision and Priorities’ identified as a key challenge was, of course, Brexit. It will impact directly on Scotland’s independent legal system, justice agencies and access to justice for people living and working in Scotland across a wide range of devolved areas of law, including civil, criminal and family law. It is of critical importance to Scotland’s communities – to individuals, families and businesses – that we maintain justice and security co-operation with our EU partners.

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