New legislation aimed at reducing the number of people sent to prison while awaiting trial has been passed by MSPs – despite a warning from victims’ organisations that it could pose a “serious risk”, particularly to the victims of domestic abuse.
Victim Support Scotland, Scottish Women’s Aid and domestic abuse support service Assist had joined together to urge MSPs to vote against the changes in the Bail and Release from Custody (Scotland) Bill.
MSPs at Holyrood however passed the legislation by 66 votes to 44, with Justice Secretary Angela Constance insisting the changes would still allow for those accused of crimes to be sent to prison on remand “where victims’ safety is put at risk”.
Concerns centred on the part of the legislation which repeals Scotland’s laws which mean bail can only be granted in exceptional circumstances in serious cases of violent, sexual or domestic abuse, where the accused person has a previous conviction for such crimes.
In a statement, Victim Support Scotland, Scottish Women’s Aid and Assist said: “The removal of this safeguard presents a serious risk to the safety of people affected by crime in Scotland, in particular victims of gender-based violence.”
Constance said the new bail test, brought in by the legislation “will allow a court to remand someone accused of a serious sexual offence or a serious domestic abuse offence, particularly where there has been a track record of offending”.
She added that while the new test stressed remand “should be used a last resort” by the courts, she stated that the Bill makes clear that sending an accused to custody ahead of their trial “is necessary where victims’ safety is put at risk”.
But Victim Support Scotland, Scottish Women’s Aid and Assist stated: “The safety of victims should be at the heart of any decision to release a person on bail.
“Therefore, the removal of this restriction and reliance on the new all-encompassing bail test does little to show victims of these types of crime that their safety is being protected under the law.”
Conservatives and Labour also opposed the legislation, with Conservative justice spokesperson Jamie Greene warning the Bill would have “far reaching consequences”.
He insisted it removed a “vital safeguard for victims of domestic abuse”, and told MSPs that organisations representing victims had “pleaded at every step of the way” against the legislation.
Greene added: “It is deeply personal to me. As the only child of a family of domestic abuse, I owe so much to organisations like them.
“That is why I can not support the Bail and Release from Custody Bill.”
Constance acknowledged the concerns that had been expressed by victims’ organisations, telling Holyrood: “Given the trauma experienced by victims of crime they should and must have confidence in our justice system.”
But she added: “I want to be clear the single test for bail will allow a court to remand someone accused of a serious sexual offence or a serious domestic abuse offence, particularly where there has been a track record of offending.
“These are the cases currently covered by the presumption in favour of remand and this is exactly the type of cases under the single bail test where remand will be used.
“While the single bail test recognises remand should be used as a last resort, it makes clear that remand is necessary where victims’ safety is put at risk.”
The Bill will also bring an end to the release of prisoners of Fridays and the days before public holidays, to ensure those leaving jail can access the support they need.
Constance said there would be “more consistent support for people leaving prison across Scotland”.
She added: “This should leave to more people leaving custody with the support they need in place, and not just a list of appointments they might struggle to attend.”
Speaking about the Bill, the Justice Secretary said: “These reforms recognise that remand will always be necessary in some cases – it plays a vital role in protecting the public and protecting the operation of the justice system.
“However, we know that short periods of imprisonment, including for remand, can be damaging and often disrupt the very things that help prevent reoffending, such as a person’s family life, their health, employment opportunities and housing.
“This legislation delivers on our wider commitment that custody should be reserved for public protection and where someone poses a risk to delivery of justice in a case and that prison should not be used to address wider societal harms.”