What new powers will Holyrood have to fight coronavirus?

The Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill is set to make changes to the justice system and eviction laws.

What new powers will Holyrood have to fight coronavirus? Getty Images

The Scottish Government has published legislation in response to the Covid-19 outbreak, which will make changes to the justice system and eviction laws.

The Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill, which is expected to pass in one day at Holyrood on Wednesday, also includes measures to allow the continuation of public services.

It will allow for judge-only trials for the most serious charges – rather than requiring a jury – as well as the possible release of inmates if prisons are becoming overwhelmed by the virus.

Constitutional relations secretary Mike Russell stressed the Bill itself does not give MSPs the power to release prisoners, with the final decision being made by a second vote at the Scottish Parliament on the regulations about who should be released.

Other provisions will also be made across the legal system for more hearings to take place remotely.

‘Exceptional powers’

Tenants will now need to be given a six-month notice to vacate by landlords under new regulations, in a move meant to provide security in the private and social rented sector.

Public-service deadlines for licensing and planning applications have also been extended, reflecting the slowdown caused by the outbreak.

The Bill is slated to expire on September 30 this year, although MSPs have the option to extend the legislation for a further two six-month periods, should it be deemed necessary to do so to tackle the pandemic.

Mr Russell said: “We are in an emergency and these are emergency powers that are necessary to allow us to concentrate on the absolute priority of dealing with the pandemic.

“Some of these measures are about the continuing function of the justice system and public services to maintain public confidence and to keep our communities safe.”

He added: “For example, we cannot simply summon juries at present – that would be completely impossible.

“… if they are used, they have to be used exceptionally carefully.”

Mike Russell, constitutional relations secretary

“The procedure to have solemn trials without a jury is in the Bill, but there are many safeguards.

“These are exceptional powers and, if they are used, they have to be used exceptionally carefully.

“We are also providing more direct help to protect private and social tenants from eviction and provide security to households facing financial hardship in the coming months.”

Opposition parties have been involved in the drafting of the legislation, with the Bill expected to pass Holyrood on Wednesday.

He added: “We have fully involved opposition parties in the Bill’s development and it is important for democracy that we tell the people of Scotland regularly when and how it is being used and be fully accountable for our actions.”

Reports will be submitted to parliament every two months on how the provisions in the Bill will be used to tackle the virus.

The Scottish Tories said they would support most of the proposals, but opposed ending jury trials.

Murdo Fraser MSP said: “There are some amendments we would like to make, such as removing the proposal to end jury trials.

“Trial by jury for serious criminal cases has been part of the Scottish justice system for hundreds of years.

“It is an important safeguard of human rights which we would be most reluctant to see removed.

“We believe there are ways to work around that particular problem without ending trial by jury altogether.

“And we think the FoI extensions should be granted to the NHS and councils only – we don’t agree there’s an overall justification for the Scottish Government itself to be afforded this change.”

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