Scotland set to become first part of UK to define sectarianism in law

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Scotland is set to become the first part of the UK to define sectarianism in law, as part of wider plans to hand out tougher punishments for crimes motivated by hate.

A group of experts commissioned by the Scottish Government said “sectarian prejudice” should be taken into account by the nation’s courts as an aggravating factor in crimes.

Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf. Picture: Getty

Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf. Picture: Getty

If passed into law, it means that someone who shouts sectarian abuse before, during or after an assault or other crime could face a harsher sentence than is currently the case.

The group’s recommendations were published at the same time as ministers launched a public consultation on reforming Scotland’s hate crime laws so they are fit for the 21st century.

In Scotland and other parts of the UK, protected characteristics currently only include race, religion, disability, sexual orientation and transgender identity.

But under plans being considered by ministers, hostility towards a person’s age or gender could also become aggravating factors in crimes, while misogynistic harassment may become a standalone offence.

The group of experts tasked with examining sectarianism laws said that while such language is “commonly used in day-to-day life”, it has never been used or defined in Scots Law. Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK which mentions sectarianism in criminal law in a section of the Justice Act of 2011, but the term was never defined despite attempts to do so.

The group suggested a definition of sectarianism in Scotland which would specifically target hostility towards a person’s “membership of a Roman Catholic or Protestant denominational group”.

The definition would also include crime motivated by someone’s “membership of a group based on their Irish or British nationality or ethnic or national origins”.

In its consultation on the proposed changes, the Scottish Government said making sectarian prejudice an aggravating factor in crimes was “worth exploring further”.

But it added: “The Scottish Government also acknowledges that if such an aggravation was to be taken forward, the scope of this would need to be carefully considered.”

Scotland’s Lord Advocate, James Wolffe QC, said hate crime was taken extremely seriously as it was “an affront to our collective values as a community, creating division and fear”.

Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf added: “Hate crime and prejudice are completely unacceptable and we are absolutely committed to tackling them.

“The public’s voice is absolutely crucial in this process and we are determined to take this opportunity to shape our legislation so that it is fit for 21st century Scotland.

“We know that legislation in itself is not enough to build the inclusive Scotland we want and aspire to, but having robust law in place is vital so that it is clear to all that this kind of behaviour is not acceptable in society.”

Neil Lennon said earlier this month he “may reconsider” his position as manager of Hibernian Football Club after being struck with a coin during a match. The Northern Irishman believes he suffers anti-Catholic “racism” in Scotland. He said: “I had a career in England unblemished by this sort of stuff.”