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With a new leader incoming the SNP government needs to focus on justice

Humza Yousaf resigned as first minister after ending the SNP's power-sharing deal with the Greens | Alamy

With a new leader incoming the SNP government needs to focus on justice

So, Humza Yousaf has gone, banished to the political wilderness by a machination of his own enacting.

The political pantomime that followed the tearing up of the Bute House Agreement (BHA) was, of course, all consuming, with eyes, ears, cameras and dictaphones poised to capture every venting of anger, every shedding of tears and every glimmer of humility. Thank goodness John Swinney stepped up when Yousaf then fell on his sword – we’ve been spared a show that runs and runs. 

Meanwhile, back in the real world, life has gone on. Indeed, just as Yousaf was sacking his Green government colleagues, the SNP was doing what it does best – issuing another paper in its Building a New Scotland series. It’s a shame that, with all the drama playing out in Bute House and the Garden Lobby, nobody seemed to notice, because this one really was a corker. 

Titled Justice in an independent Scotland, the document conceded that pretty much everything that falls under the broad justice church – the judiciary, the courts, the prosecution service – is already independent, leaving very little for the separatists to promise to try to entice voters in.

The full incorporation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child into Scots law? Sure, that’s a laudable aim, but with the dog’s dinner the government made of things when it tried to do some of that last time round, does anyone really believe it will do any better without Westminster there to stand in its way?     

The bottom line is that justice really isn’t this government’s strong suit. Angela Constance, who took control of the portfolio when Yousaf became FM, has been so cack-handed in her attempts to introduce wide-ranging and long-overdue reforms that the legal profession is close to mutiny.

And, with lawyers already vowing to boycott Constance’s juryless trials plan, the day after Yousaf ended the BHA the Law Society of Scotland withdrew from the government’s Legal Aid Remuneration Project. Set up in 2022 – a mere five years after the government conducted a review into publicly funded legal services – the project was supposed to find a new, more equitable, way to pay the lawyers who do such work. Two years on, no progress has been made and the society says it has lost all confidence it ever will be.

It should come as no surprise, then, that this administration is getting it so wrong when it comes to the Post Office Horizon scandal. We’ve all heard the one about how the UK Government, which is legislating to overturn the Horizon-based convictions of former sub-postmasters elsewhere in the UK, should extend that legislation’s reach to Scotland. Never mind that Scotland has its own famously independent legal system, and never mind that those working in that system have stressed the need for a judicial rather than political solution.

The SNP’s position seems clear – Scottish postmasters should be exonerated en masse rather than having to wait for individual convictions to be overturned by the courts. Stuart Munro, the convener of the Law Society of Scotland’s Criminal Law Committee and the lawyer for a number of Horizon victims, isn’t keen, telling me recently that it is “incredibly valuable” and “hugely important” that “the highest court in the land” rather than a bunch of politicians takes responsibility for telling people they are innocent. A government scheme that doesn’t even identify the names of the people being cleared is, he said, “a mile away from the public justice people are entitled to”.

His opinion surely trumps that of solicitor David Enright, who is busy fighting his clients’ corner from his office in Brentford, Middlesex, but who, as the holder of an English practising certificate, is not qualified to advise on Scots law. Guess which one the SNP wheeled out to support its argument on Horizon, though, telling journalists it has it on his authority that there’s “real politics going on” in the UK Government’s refusal to include Scotland in its bill? It was not a good look.    

The justice sector is in disarray – police are disillusioned, prisons are overflowing, and lawyers are on the verge of revolt. The very least the government can do is show it understands how the system it claims to be so proud of operates. With the pantomime seemingly over for now, there’s no excuse for it not to do that. 

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Read the most recent article written by Margaret Taylor - Ross and Swinney accuse each other of dishonesty during tetchy FMQs.

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