A year in Scottish justice: Police and courts are increasingly being dragged into political disputes – Tom Wood

At the year’s end, it’s right to look back at the past 12 months and reflect on the triumphs and disasters.

The policing of the COP26 climate summit was a triumph and every murder in Scotland this year was solved (Picture: John Devlin)
The policing of the COP26 climate summit was a triumph and every murder in Scotland this year was solved (Picture: John Devlin)

Overwhelmingly, 2021 has been year two of Covid, where all aspects of our lives have been overshadowed by the pandemic. There can be few not connected with someone who has fallen victim. As we stand at the threshold of 2022, we can only guess and fear about the course of new variants.

But what about justice? Let’s review the year’s headlines. In June, we got a new Lord Advocate, hugely important for the direction of our justice system.

I suspect the outgoing James Wolffe QC was not entirely unhappy to leave. An able reformer, his tenure was plagued by the unedifying Salmond case and its consequences.

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The new Lord Advocate, Dorothy Bain QC, has a reputation for being razor-sharp and tenacious. She will need all her skill for the task especially since the administration of justice lies severely damaged. Court delays have never been longer, the result of Covid and the swingeing cuts that have closed many regional courts. If justice delayed is justice denied, we have a problem.

Nowhere is this problem more acute than in the case of rape. Long delays and a shockingly low conviction rate demands action, but what? One suggestion is to remove juries, but we should beware. They bring real-world sense to what is often a fine judgement. Better perhaps to take a long, hard look at the 19th-century definition of rape. We must do better.

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Our prisons too have had a torrid time. Significantly emptied during the pandemic’s early stages, they have gradually filled up. Credible alternatives to custody seem in short supply.

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Better news on our murder rate, at a 40-year low. While violence against women has dominated the headlines, the body count tells another story. The vast majority of murder victims are young men.

As always, it’s been a year of mixed fortunes for the police. The M9 incident, the road crash which resulted in the deaths of John Yuill and Lamara Bell, rumbles on. A trial concluded and responsibility established, claims for compensation now follow. For some inexplicable reason a Fatal Accident Inquiry is to be held even though we know what happened.

The political weaponisation of our justice system continues with police and courts increasingly dragged into political disputes.

Another low point came in Glasgow when a crowd intervened to obstruct the execution of a lawful warrant issued by the UK immigration authorities. Hailed as a defeat for the Westminster government, it was a victory for the mob, made more distasteful by the apparent support of politicians who should know better.

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But 2021 has also been a year of major successes. All the year’s murders were solved and the serious and organised crime capability of Police Scotland continues to impress. The policing of COP26 was a triumph, plain and simple.

On a personal note, the year ended in sadness. My old friend Peter Ritchie died after a short illness a few weeks ago. A fine detective, a wonderful writer and a committed community activist, he had much more to give.

Losing such talent is a bad way to end a year. Let’s hope for better in 2022.

Tom Wood is a writer and former police officer

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