In a landmark ruling in 1923 that has since echoed around the world, English judge Lord Hewart declared that “it is not merely of some importance but is of fundamental importance that justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done”.
But, at the moment in Scotland, part of the criminal justice system – the deliberations over whether to release criminals from prison early – takes place behind closed doors.
The current system means that a murder victim’s family can receive a letter telling them that the killer is about to be released and could soon be walking the streets near their home. One such letter was sent to the family of 17-year-old Michelle Stewart, stabbed to death in 2008, telling them that her murderer, John Wilson, was set to be given unsupervised release, nine years after he received a life sentence for murder – even though the judge had set a tariff of 12 years.
Her family, from Ayrshire. has now bravely launched a campaign for “Michelle’s Law”, calling for victims or relatives to be allowed to make representations about early release in person; for the safety and welfare of victims of crime and their families to be taken into account; and for increased use of powers to impose ‘exclusion zones’ on offenders to prevent them from imposing their presence upon those they have wronged. They have also launched a petition calling for Wilson to be stopped from living in Ayrshire and are due to meet the Justice Secretary, Humza Yousaf, today to discuss their concerns.
Ahead of the meeting, Michelle’s sister Lisa Stewart said: “The original sentence was not nearly long enough and now we face, just nine years on, the prospect of seeing my sister’s killer on the street, on the bus or in the shops. It is unbelievably painful.” It feels like a hangover from a different age that victims are given such limited input. As demonstrated by the furore over the plan to release John Worboys, a serial sex attacker in London, which led to a judge overturning the parole board’s decision, there is clearly greater public scrutiny of this part of the process.
And for good reason. For it seems that, in the absence of a public procedure, some decisions have lost touch with public opinion. At the very least, written decisions about parole and early release should now be published so everyone knows the reasons and justice is seen to be done.