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by Gemma Fraser
19 April 2021
In pursuit of justice: parties set out priorities for policing and legal reform

In pursuit of justice: parties set out priorities for policing and legal reform

The image of a masked, wide-eyed, red-headed woman pinned to the ground by two police officers as she stared straight into the camera lens with a quiet defiance is one which will haunt many forever.

It looked more like the cover of a dystopian Margaret Atwood novel than a photograph taken at what was supposed to be a peaceful gathering of women in London. 

Patsy Stevenson, a 5ft 2, 28-year-old woman, was allegedly thrown to the floor and handcuffed for – in her own words – “just standing there” at the Clapham Common vigil held in memory of murdered Sarah Everard, and the moment was captured for the world to see.

There were accusations of “manhandling”, criticisms of a heavy-handed response to a peaceful vigil and calls for Dame Cressida Dick, the Metropolitan Police commissioner, to resign. 

While the repercussions of a peaceful protest gone so horribly wrong are obvious and far-reaching, the sorry scenes also served to illustrate the problems of policing in a pandemic – problems which policing representatives have been highlighting for the past year.

And while senior Met officers shared the public’s regret that the Clapham Common vigil ended in such a way, they were also steadfast in defending their stance, stating they were doing what was required of them.

Speaking to the London Assembly’s Police and Crime Committee, deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Stephen House, said officers had to balance “COVID-19 regulations with the human rights of expressing emotions”.

The former Police Scotland chief constable said: “We certainly didn’t want to see a vigil in the memory of Sarah to end in the scenes we saw on Saturday night. We fully understand the strength of feeling that the images provoked and we understand why it has provoked a national debate.

“We have heard now for a year that COVID legislation in its various forms makes the job of policing very difficult and that simply couldn’t have been illustrated more clearly by the events of Saturday.”

North of the border, Police Scotland had already faced its own illustration of the difficulties of policing during a pandemic when Rangers fans gathered in George Square to celebrate the team’s Scottish Premiership win last month.

The force came under fire for its response. Unlike the Met officers, Scotland’s police officers were criticised for not being heavy handed enough.

SNP MSP Sandra White was one of those who questioned their tactics, asking: “Why did the police escort thousands of fans, people, through the streets of Glasgow, openly breaking all the COVID regulations, drinking openly in the street, urinating in the street, causing mayhem in the streets of Glasgow and George Square?

“Why was it part of a so-called operation to march and escort them down to George Square... how can that be a safe operation?”

Subsequent reviews of both the policing of the Clapham Common vigil and the events in George Square found officers’ responses to have been appropriate.

In the case of the Met, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary found the force had acted in “a measured and proportionate way”.

The inspectorate found that the force was “justified” in deciding that the risks of transmitting coronavirus “were too great to ignore when planning for and policing the event”.

A review of Police Scotland’s response to the mass gathering in Glasgow was carried out by John Scott QC, chairman of Police Scotland’s independent advisory group.  

He found that the approach taken by officers not to disperse Rangers fans may have helped to prevent conflict.

Addressing MPs at the Scottish Affairs Committee, assistant chief constable Bernard Higgins said: “I have to go on record and say that I thought the police response was exceptionally professional and proportionate, supported by the findings of John Scott QC. The reality is we couldn’t arrest our way out of that situation.”

The Scottish Police Federation (SPF) has raised concerns about the prolonged use of coronavirus powers and said the damage to the relationship between police and the public will be long-lasting.

Calum Steele, the SPF’s general secretary, told Holyrood: “We should never lose sight of the fact the law has restricted what were ordinary day-to-day activities as little as a year ago, and whilst much attention has recently been directed towards the right to protest and right to gather, it’s undoubtedly the reality that the greatest infringement has actually been on the right to a private family life, with the government, and by extension the police service, effectively having an enforcing role over the nature and the extent to which individuals are able to enjoy their private family lives.

“There is an inevitability that with the passage of time, as people look back on what they endured, that resentment over the kind of restrictions that they faced will grow and there is a real possibility that will impact very negatively the relationships with the communities that the police service rely on.”

Steele added: “It is a brave individual indeed who would predict that the consequence of the police enforcing legislation against an increasingly hostile and non-compliant public will not result in a deterioration in the confidence of the police and also a general unwillingness to comply with a whole variety of other regulations.” 

With long-term damage to relations as a result of coronavirus restrictions seemingly inevitable, it’s no surprise that justice issues are among the highest priority as politicians turn to their next battle: the Scottish election.

And it’s no coincidence, then, that the SNP’s justice pledges for the upcoming election centre around the police force.

The party promises to ensure Police Scotland has the resources it needs; to protect the police revenue budget in real terms for the entirety of the next parliament; to strengthen the police service with extra officers to help reduce crime to a 41-year low; and ensure that the police also have more specialists, such as experts in cyber-crime and counter-fraud.

It also promises to support the rehabilitation of offenders and reduce reoffending by improving community-based alternatives to short-term prison sentences if it is re-elected.

The SNP has campaigned against short-term prison sentences for a long time, of course, and was successful in reducing the use of short-term imprisonment in Scotland, with the presumption against short sentences extended from three months to 12 months or less in 2019.

The SNP has also pledged to introduce a ‘Bairn’s Hoose’ in Scotland to better support children and young people in the criminal justice system, which would be modelled on the Scandinavian Barnahus.

The facilities allow children to be interviewed away from police stations and courtrooms, as well as providing access to medical care, social services and mental health workers.

Humza Yousaf also announced the SNP would create a new Victims Commissioner, who would provide an “independent voice” for victims and witnesses, as well as a plan to alter the funding regime for support services to ensure it is trauma informed.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats’ justice pledges include stronger action to stop reoffending and cut crime, and new measures to give confidence to victims of crime. They also want a commission to look into violence against women and girls.

Scottish Labour wants to restore the connections between the police force and local communities, end further centralisation and support diversion policies that prevent vulnerable drug users being exposed to unnecessary court action, while the Scottish Greens are campaigning on zero tolerance against all forms of discrimination and treating drug use as a health issue, not a crime.

The Scottish Conservatives’ manifesto pledges have a strong justice focus and the party has revealed some headline-grabbing intentions if it wins the election.

Ending Scotland’s not proven verdict is one of its key promises, with Douglas Ross stating that the three-verdict system is “distressing and confusing” for victims of crime.

The bid to abolish the not proven verdict has been the subject of a long-standing campaign by women’s groups.

The Scottish Greens, too, have said they would abolish the not proven verdict, while Nicola Sturgeon has also since thrown her weight behind the campaign.

Speaking to PA Scotland, she said: “The conviction rate for rape and sexual assault is shamefully low and I think there is mounting evidence and increasingly strong arguments that the not proven verdict is a part of that. So I think it is something that it is time to look at.”

In a similar vein, an overhaul of Scotland’s courts could see rape trials heard without a jury as victims are left “retraumatised” by the current system.

A review, led by Lord Justice Clerk Lady Dorrian, into how Scotland’s justice system treats rape cases has made a series of recommendations, which also includes the setting up of a specialist court to deal with all serious sexual offences.

Dorrian said the review group had made recommendations which could “fundamentally change and improve the way sexual offences are prosecuted in Scotland.”

The Tories have also pledged to repeal parts of the SNP’s controversial Hate Crime Bill, which was passed at Holyrood despite being opposed by the Scottish Tories, Reform UK MSP Michelle Ballantyne and three Labour MSPs.

The Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill consolidates a number of laws into one piece of legislation, but it also creates a new offence of stirring up hatred on the grounds of religion, sexual orientation, age, disability and transgender identity. An amendment that would have included women as a protected group was defeated, with critics saying this means the law does not adequately protect women.

In fact, Labour MSP Johann Lamont, who proposed the amendment on adding sex as an aggravator, said the bill – which sets out that a person could be considered as transgender if they are “a person who cross-dresses” – offered “more protection to somebody who dresses as a woman in his spare time than it does to women.”

Yousaf has established a working group, led by Baroness Helena Kennedy, to look at where there might be gaps in the law and to examine a stand-alone offence of misogyny. The peer will also examine the issue of the adding a sex aggravator to the legislation.

Not everyone is convinced though. As Lamont put it: “It will take more than a working group to undo the damage that has been done today by the exclusion of women from hate crime legislation.”

The same could be said about the damage that has been done over the past year as a result of the restrictions placed on day-to-day life and freedoms. 

While there are many ambitious and forward-thinking policies being taken into the election, it might take some time before faith in any kind of justice system can be restored in Scotland.   

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