News that a specialist prosecutor has now been appointed to oversee domestic abuse cases in Scotland speaks to the continuing public concern over the appalling Bill Walker case and how this was dealt with in the Scottish legal system.
Not only did this hideous example of sustained abuse by the former MSP highlight Scotland’s recurring problem with violence against women in the home despite high-profile campaigns, but it also brought a deeper shock: the way in which the legal system’s handling of such cases leads to lighter sentences than the proven offences merit.
The appointment of Anne Marie Hicks, who handled the domestic abuse caseload in Glasgow for three years, as Scotland’s first specialist procurator-fiscal for this offence comes with a commitment to improve the way such cases are dealt with. This is overdue and to be welcomed. Ms Hicks will be working with the police, Assist (Advocacy, Support, Safety, Information Services Together) and Scottish Women’s Aid to raise awareness among prosecutors and the police and to improve the way cases are prepared. But more can be done to raise the importance assigned to them in the legal process.
Scotland’s domestic abuse court has been overloaded and is characterised by such long delays that victims are, in some cases, unwilling to pursue them. There are also concerns that delays mean sheriffs are less able to impose special bail conditions and victims are being put at risk.
Figures recently revealed by Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson Alison McInnes MSP showed how the vast majority of domestic violence cases are prosecuted in lower-level courts. If such cases were heard before a jury, the maximum sentence imposed on offenders could be greater. Out of more than 4,000 charges of domestic violence in the past year, fewer than 200 were heard before a jury.
However, nearly 3,500 charges went before a sheriff only, where the sentencing powers available are much less. Women’s rights campaigners say that the Bill Walker case was not unusual. His case was heard in a sheriff court without a jury and his sentence was the maximum available to the sheriff. It provoked widespread criticism that the former MSP’s case should have been tried as a more serious “solemn” case with greater sentencing powers.
Solicitor General Lesley Thomson QC has pledged to prioritise any recommended changes to prosecution policy and deal with domestic abuse cases by means of a “robust prosecution policy.” That is to the good. Domestic violence is an increasing problem in Scotland, despite the fact that the scourge has been repeatedly targeted by governments. Hopefully the legacy of Walker’s shocking behaviour will be greater recognition of the seriousness of this crime and the need for improvement in the way it is dealt with in the courts. The appointment of Ms Hicks is a good signal.
Time to wait for the first tram
It was only to be expected that as soon as an end was in sight to the tramworks that have bedevilled Edinburgh for years and the council proclaimed the first working tram on the horizon that calls would be made for an extension of the line to Newhaven and other points. Two brave academics – professors Sir Donald Mackay and Christopher Harvie, a former SNP MSP – have been quick on the draw with an article (by the former) and now a letter (by the latter) to The Scotsman. At least they have had plenty of time – more than five years – to draft their compositions and wait for the ink to dry. And wait. And wait.
Such has been the colossal dislocation caused by the tramworks, the business ruination and the relentless rise in the cost of the project that their early calls for an extension are, to say the least, brave.
Edinburgh residents have been exasperated by the delays and disruption this project has visited on them. No journey across Scotland’s capital has been straightforward since the first pneumatic drill hit the tarmac. Again. And again.
While there may be a case for extending the tram lines to their originally envisaged destinations, it is surely prudent to wait until the first trams have proven themselves – there will almost certainly be “hiccups” and “teething problems” as regular daily usage tests the system.
There is also the issue of fin-ance. The city’s coffers will need to be replenished, particularly for a system that is expected to function at an overall loss. Given all the crises and setbacks this project has visited on the capital, we must surely have learnt by now the wisdom of taking this endeavour one step at a time.