Human rights breaches possible as 'unfathomable' Scotland remand population continues to rise, MSPs warned

The rising length of time potentially innocent people spend in prison on remand could be in danger of breaching human rights legislation, MSPs have been warned.
The number of prisoners on remand in Scottish jails is high due to court backlogs.The number of prisoners on remand in Scottish jails is high due to court backlogs.
The number of prisoners on remand in Scottish jails is high due to court backlogs.

The number of the prison population on remand has increased from around 16 per cent to 27 per cent as of the latest figures, MSPs were told – an increase that was described as “unfathomable” by Emma Jardine of Howard League Scotland.

Speaking to Holyrood’s criminal justice committee on Wednesday, Ms Jardine described Scottish Government plans to extend the maximum amount of time an individual can legally be held on remand as a "necessary evil".

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The Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill – labelled a “power grab” by opposition parties – seeks to extend these time limits by 180 days, meaning individuals who could be found innocent may be held in prison on remand for almost an entire year.

However, Ms Jardine, a policy and public affairs adviser at the penal reform organisation, cautiously backed the extensions due to the backlog in the courts, which is unlikely to be cleared before 2024.

However, she warned MSPs the Scottish court system was in danger of breaching human rights legislation.

She said: “We are in danger of breaching Article Six, ‘everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time’.

"There are serious human rights safeguards being called into question by this.”

Ms Jardine said alternatives to custody needed to be better funded.

She said: “It’s already been acknowledged that we need to do something about this quickly and it needs to be something of significance.

“It’s unfathomable that the remand rates are so high compared to England and Wales.”

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Ms Jardine continued: “We need to mark cases more quickly. We shouldn’t be remanding anyone who is unlikely to receive a custodial sentence.

“We need to make better use of non-custodial bail options, they need to be adequately source-funded.

“It’s a case of bold actions rather than bold visions.”

Teresa Medhurst, interim chief executive of the Scottish Prison Service, also spoke to the committee.

She said there had been a “significant shift” in the size of the remand population compared to before the pandemic.

Ms Medhurst said: “At the same time as the demand population has risen, the short-term population has reduced.”

She continued: “Although people are spending longer periods of time on remand, I had anticipated we might experience some disruption or unrest as a consequence. That hasn’t actually proven to be the case.”

MSPs also heard evidence around the potential introduction of rules where the early release of prisoners would take place.

Ms Jardine was among those who cautioned against the move, calling for more consultation and additional focus on vulnerability, while warning against legislation that could see prisoners released early due to poor infrastructure within the prison estate.

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Kate Wallace, the chief executive officer of Victim Support Scotland, said many victims were “petrified” in the early stages of the pandemic when early release was brought in.

She said: “[My plea] is that we put in measures to make sure that information is shared around victims, and we make sure there is safety planning, support planning put in place, so that victims get the appropriate help that they need when a perpetrator in their case is being released.”

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