Police's new lockdown powers are draconian but they will use them sensitively – Tom Wood

If the lockdown does not last too long and police numbers hold up, sensitive enforcement of lockdown laws can pass without drama, writes Tom Wood.

Police have been tasked with ensuring people comply with the lockdown's restrictions

Our struggle against Covid-19 is testing every area of our interconnected lives. Our people are sick and dying and our economy is being torn apart with long-term consequences that are impossible to calculate. It is affecting us all as we face curbs on our freedom that no generation has faced before, even in wartime. And at the sharp end of the lockdown legislation is our justice system. So how is it coping and what is the likely fallout?

Even hoping for the best, it’s clear that the repercussions of this deadly virus will be long-lasting, but the flip side of calamity is sometimes opportunity, perhaps the catastrophe of Covid-19 can be a catalyst for positive change.

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One thing for sure is that when the dust settles, there will have been plenty mistakes made – good news for the legions of fault-finders, our virus management will not have been a textbook operation because there is no textbook. And our justice system will be no exception.

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Our courts have now moved to a greatly reduced service. For obvious social distancing reasons, jury trials have been suspended and, with trials without jury resisted, there will be an enormous backlog in our already congested court programme. Consequently, remands in custody are greatly reduced with alternatives to custody the order of the day. For the same social distancing reasons, our prisons are being emptied, particularly of short-term non-violent offenders, giving our beleaguered prison service some relief from the chronic overcrowding that plagues the prison estate.

For the police it is a mixed bag, some crime types will fall, others rise. Without pubs and the night-time economy, public violence will shrink but enforced close proximity may see rises in domestic violence. The absence of sporting and other public events will remove an enormous burden from police resources.

But at the frontline of enforcing the lockdown legislation, our police have been put on a tightrope requiring the most delicate balance. Never has a police service been given greater power and been so determined to use it sparingly. Of course, there will always be an over-enthusiastic cop somewhere just as there will always be a few numbskulls, or “Corvidiots” in the current parlance, who won’t take a telling – it was ever thus. But most reasonable people will see the sense of the curbs on their freedom and in response our police will do all they can to maintain a softly-softly approach.

And that is the way it must be, for the success of policing Covid-19 rests firmly on public support, enforcement cannot be seen as irrational or punative. The leaders of Police Scotland know this, we can be confident that in Scotland there will be no belligerent statements or posturing. In this time of emergency, our police service will surely try to help us out rather than catch us out if they possibly can. The appointment of the highly regarded human rights QC John Scott to independently overview the application of the lockdown legislation is proof.

If the lockdown does not linger on into late summer and police numbers hold up, sensitive enforcement of these most draconian of laws can pass without drama. And when we come out the other side, there will be lessons for justice. If our courts can divert offenders from prosecution in an emergency and we can clear our jails of short-term prisoners for health reasons, why not keep doing that? After all, we know short-term sentences don’t work. Much will have changed after Covid-19 and if we are smart, that is how it should be.

Tom Wood is a writer and former deputy chief constable