Passing Hate Crime Bill was 'right thing to do', says new Scottish justice secretary

Passing the highly controversial Hate Crime Bill was the “right thing to do”, Scotland’s new justice secretary has said in an exclusive interview with The Scotsman.

Keith Brown, who was handed the justice brief by Nicola Sturgeon during her post-election reshuffle of her Cabinet, said there was still “a lot of unfinished business”, but reiterated his backing for the Bill.

He also said the Scottish Government was focused on reducing the court backlog “as far as possible” in coming years rather than setting a firm date for it to be cleared.

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The Hate Crime legislation, passed in March by Holyrood, was criticised and described as threatening freedom of speech, but was defended by former justice secretary Humza Yousaf.

Keith Brown has defended the Scottish Government's Hate Crime Bill

Concerns around the exclusion of sex from the list of protected characteristics was also central to controversy, with a working group led by Dame Helena Kennedy set to provide recommendations to the Scottish Government around whether to include a sex-based aggravation or hatred offence to the bill.

Asked whether he saw any flaws in the Bill, Mr Brown backed the legislation and confirmed he expected the misogyny working group’s recommendations within the year timescale set out by Mr Yousaf.

He said: “We have seen that hate crime is an issue. We’ll see the figures come out this week and we know that hate crime is there and it is a way to deal with that.

“There is obviously a lot of unfinished business in terms of the misogyny side of it, which we will take forward.

“I have had a very useful exchange with Dame Helena Kennedy as to progress on that, so there is more to go, but it is an important issue and it affects people’s lives.

“I know it was controversial, but I do think it was the right thing to do … it should help to protect people from unjustified hate crime, that’s the purpose of it.”

Speaking while visiting a remote jury centre at a cinema in Edinburgh, Mr Brown refused to put a date on when the government hopes to have cleared the court backlog that has been exacerbated by Covid-19.

In March, the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service said the process could take until at least 2025, but Mr Brown said people could “only make estimates” about when the backlog could be cleared.

The Scottish Government plans on expanding the remote jury centre experiment first started in August under former justice secretary Humza Yousaf as a way to keep the courts moving during the pandemic.

The new justice minister added that key innovations from the remote jury centre system would be rolled out further in the hope it would reduce the backlog faster.

Asked when the backlog would be cleared, Mr Brown said: “People can only make estimates on that right now. I think I am more concentrating on the fact how can we reduce that backlog.

"I think there are some innovations here which even small things, you can take 15 minutes less to clear the court and things like that, and also the way that people give evidence, it is starting to show up some real innovations.

“I know having spoken with the Lord President, Lord Carloway, that he is very keen to see these innovations brought forward. We’ve put £50 million into the system already, we will see a further expansion in September, all of that is trying to reduce that backlog.

“Rather than say it is going to take ‘X’ number of years, I just want to try and see if we can reduce it as far as possible.”

In being given the justice brief, the MSP for Clackmannanshire and Dunblane and the SNP’s depute leader has been handed one of Scotland’s toughest jobs amid a growing court backlog and concern over the dual role of the Lord Advocate.

James Wolffe QC, who came under sustained criticism for his role in the handling of Alex Salmond’s judicial review case, which was lost by the Scottish Government, announced his resignation from the role after the election, with the First Minister yet to announce a successor.

Reform of the role, which sees the Lord Advocate take on the role as head of the prosecution service by leading the Crown Office and as chief legal adviser to the government, has been demanded by opposition due to concerns about potential political influence in prosecution decisions.

Asked whether he backed reform, Mr Brown said the concerns that have been raised “need to be listened to” and the Scottish Government would consult on the issue.

The justice secretary said: “I’m aware from my early discussions that there are some different views on that. There are some who have very strong convictions that there are reasons why the two roles should continue and, of course, it is a very long established role.

“But the concerns that have been raised need to be listened to and I’m sure they will come up tomorrow in the debate that we have in the Scottish Parliament.

“I think if you say you’re going to consult, then that is what you should do and you should keep your mind open to the possibilities as you go into that consultation.

“I’m keeping my mind open to the possibilities of it.

“I know you are right to say that the public discourse and the opposition parties have given this particular point of view from a particular set of circumstances.

“But there are other points of view, not least in the legal profession, so I’d want to listen to those as well.”

He refused to be drawn on the progress of finding a replacement for Mr Wolff, saying an announcement would be made “in due course” by the First Minister.

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