‘Prisoners’ human rights require Saturday courts’

SATURDAY courts could be introduced to stop offenders being held for more than 36 hours and potentially having their human rights breached, MSPs have been warned.

Picture: Sean Bell

There are concerns someone arrested on a Friday may not appear before a judge or sheriff until Monday morning, or Tuesday over Bank Holiday periods.

MSPs were told that could lead to a challenge under article five of the European Convention on Human Rights and a person’s right to liberty.

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Discussing the proposed Criminal Justice Bill, MSPs asked whether the legislation was strong enough on delivering swift justice. Much of the bill is based on a review of Scots law by the Lord Justice Clerk, Lord Carloway. He said suspects should not be held for more than 36 hours before appearing in court.

Lord Carloway initially said Saturday courts could be part of “radical reforms”, but made no firm recommendation in his final report and the bill does not make provision for them.

Shelagh McCall, commissioner of the Scottish Human Rights Commission, told Holyrood’s justice committee: “We’ve been at the outer reaches of breaching article five for some time, which is why Lord Carloway’s recommendation of 36 hours was welcome. The rule has been the same for many, many years and the situation has not improved, so legislation is necessary and Lord Carloway’s original recommendation would be one way to solve the problem.”

SNP MSP Roderick Campbell asked the experts: “Lord Carloway made reference to the possibility of Saturday courts. Is the bill adequate there?”

James Chalmers, professor of law at Strathclyde University, replied: “I would repeat what has already been said – we are at risk of running foul of the European Convention on Human Rights, article five.” Dr Fiona Leverick, also of Strathclyde University’s school of law, added: “I suspect we will need Saturday courts.”

At present, Saturday courts are rarely held in Scotland: only where there are two neighbouring bank holidays – such as at Hogmanay and at Easter. Any move to use them more regularly would be a blow to the Scottish Government’s bid to make cuts to its criminal justice budget. The government already plans to close 17 courts, saving an estimated £3 million upfront and £1m a year afterwards.

Those plans have proven controversial among opposition parties, communities and businesses, with claims it could lead to suspects being detained in police cells for too long.

Alison McInnes MSP, Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokeswoman, said after the committee: “It’s in the interests of the basic principles of justice that people denied liberty should have prompt access to proper judicial process. Saturday courts are one option which could address this.”

However, a Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We are confident that the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill as introduced complies with the requirements of the European Convention of Human Rights. The Scottish Government and our justice sector partners will be keeping the time suspects are kept in custody before first court appearance under review.”

She added: “Whether any future measures, such as Saturday courts, are necessary will be considered as part of this review.”

A Scottish Court Service spokesman added: “We are considering the terms of Lord Carloway’s review, and its implications, with our justice partners.”