Equality on Sentencing Council ‘missed opportunity’

Justice Secretary Michael Matheson hailed the creation which will aim to improve public understanding. Picture: Michael Gillen
Justice Secretary Michael Matheson hailed the creation which will aim to improve public understanding. Picture: Michael Gillen
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FAILURE to properly ensure gender equality on Scotland’s new sentencing council is a “missed opportunity”, it has been claimed.

The Scottish Sentencing Council, which aims to raise public understanding of how courts determine punishments for offenders, comes into existence today.

The lack of judicial diversity we have at present is indefensible and has contributed to serious failings in the sentencing of women in particular

Christine Grahame, SNP MSP

Last month, The Scotsman revealed that concerns had been raised with one of the country’s most senior judges about the representation of women on the new body.

In a letter to Lord Carloway, the Lord Justice Clerk, MSP Christine Grahame said there appeared to be no formal requirement for gender equality to be considered regarding appointments to the sentencing council.

Speaking today, Liberal Democrat justice spokeswoman Alison McInnes said: “The lack of judicial diversity we have at present is indefensible and has contributed to serious failings in the sentencing of women in particular.

“The number of women convicted of a crime has gone up by 14 per cent in the past decade, but the number in custody has more than doubled. The gravity of offending has remained the same.

“The establishment of the sentencing council gave us the chance to make real progress towards ensuring that the justice system is geared towards rehabilitation and addresses the specific needs of women. By failing to ensure gender balance, the fear is that Scottish Government has missed this opportunity.”

The SSC is designed to promote consistency and transparency in sentencing as well as encourage better understanding of punishments handed down by Scotland’s courts.

It will also be responsible for producing sentencing guidelines for the judiciary.

Four of the body’s 12 members are female, including Assistant Chief Constable Val Thomson and Crown Agent Catherine Dyer.

But in a letter sent earlier this year in her capacity as convener of the Scottish Parliament’s justice committee, Christine Grahame MSP complained that there was nothing in the council’s formulation which would hold it to the Scottish Government’s “50:50 by 2020” aim of achieving gender parity in boardrooms.

Ms Grahame said there was “some concern” among MSPs on the committee that equality issues would not be taken into account during the appointment process.

Commenting on the establishment of the SSC, Lord Carloway said: “Sentencing is much more complex than it sometimes appears - there can be many different factors involved. The council will work to raise awareness and understanding of sentencing practice - not only for our justice partners but for the wider public - helping to build confidence in our justice system.

“I expect the council to take Scotland into a new era, in which we pursue a more principled approach to sentencing with improved consistency. This will be at the heart of our programme.”