Catherine Dyer: Sentencing Council’s vital mission

The High Court in Glasgow. Picture: John Devlin
The High Court in Glasgow. Picture: John Devlin
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THE recent launch of the new Scottish Sentencing Council is a historic development in Scots law, sig­nalling a new era in our justice system.

The council will play a significant role in how sentencing practice is considered in Scotland, aiming to encourage consistent approaches and raise public understanding of how these sentences are determined by judges.

The council comprises 12 members: six judicial, three legal and three members with personal expertise from other fields. Police Scotland’s Assistant Chief Constable Val Thomson has vast experience of policing and current justice system initiatives; Sue Moody brings renowned expertise on victims’ issues, while, as a member of the Sentencing Commission for Scotland, Strathclyde University’s Professor Neil Hutton was instrumental in creating the current council.

The council will bring together expertise from across the criminal justice system in order to gather the evidence required to prepare sentencing guidelines. In addition, it will look to expertise further afield from specialists such as social work services and victims’ groups.

As one of the legal members of the council, I feel very privileged to be part of such an exciting and historic development in Scots Law. Over the decades since I first qualified as a Scottish solicitor there have been many changes to the legal system, and no doubt many more are to come. The creation of this council brings further modernisation and transparency. Its aim is to make the outcome of court cases more consistent and assist victims, offenders and the public to be clear as to why a particular sentence in each case has been reached by the court.

The council has already been discussing research of other sentencing bodies from around the world and a first step will now be to decide how to prioritise areas on which the council should consider guidelines, and determine whether the best approach is to consider sentences by offence, as has been done elsewhere, or perhaps examine types of offender.

At its first meeting held this week, the council covered substantial ground agreeing necessary administrative preliminaries to allow proper frameworks within which to proceed to the consideration of guidelines and development of policy. This included establishing standing orders and rules of conduct, with work also beginning on the consideration of whether a definition of the basic principles and purposes of sentencing would be appropriate.

While the Council can, and will, use its own initiative to decide which guidelines to prioritise, the High Court and the Sheriff Appeal Court can also call for certain areas to be explored. Scottish Ministers can make requests for particular aspects of sentencing to be looked at as well.

This council has been established as a “listening” body and will receive as wide a scope of views as possible. A significant decision taken at its first meeting was to consult widely on all guidelines being prepared. While an independent body, the council is obligated to consult justice partners such as the Lord Advocate and Scottish ministers, but has agreed to extend this further, to encourage the public to feed directly into the process.

Voices of all users of our criminal court system should have opportunities to contribute to the development of sentencing practice. Such inputs will be invaluable in helping council members to shape guidelines that will, inevitably, have an impact, not only on victims and offenders involved in specific cases, but on society in Scotland as a whole.

Such wide consultation will mean that guidelines will not be rushed into place but prepared after considered consultation. This will include research into their likely effects, their cost and their benefits.

The law then requires judges to take account of relevant guidelines when imposing a sentence – or give reasons for not doing so.

The council has a significant role to play in the justice system and I am looking forward to working with colleagues to tackle the challenges ahead.