Suspects who fail to attend court face being sentenced in absence

CRIMINAL suspects who break bail conditions by failing to turn up in court could be sentenced in their absence under tough new proposals outlined by Cathy Jamieson, Scotland’s justice minister.

Her calls came as human rights campaigners expressed concern, claiming the moves would create "a legal minefield" and could lead to a flood of appeals under the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR).

Ms Jamieson’s backing for trials to go ahead without the presence of the accused came as she responded to a new report by the Sentencing Commission for Scotland which suggests new proposals to tighten up existing bail systems north of the Border, including wider use of tagging as a bail condition and fewer prisoners being placed in jail on remand.

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If adopted by the Executive, the recommendations will involve the authorities tagging thousands more suspected criminals every year and the creation of statutory guidelines for sheriffs considering bail. But critics claim the Executive’s efforts to find alternatives to custody will come at a huge cost - with more rapists and violent serious offenders placed on bail as they await trial.

Yesterday’s report by the Sentencing Commission, the independent body established by Jack McConnell in 2003, called for tougher measures including jail sentences for those who jump bail.

Its author, Lord MacLean, said proposals to get tough on bail jumpers could end up with more people in prison in the short term but, in the long run, more suspects will end up on remand. He said: "By being tougher on those who offend while on bail, the prison population might increase, but we hope that will only be in the short term. If this all works well, more people should be released on bail - people who, in the opinion of the releasing judge, are entitled to it. But they’ll be under greater supervision."

But Ms Jamieson last night went beyond the report recommendations and floated the prospect of trials being held in the absence of accused who fail to turn up in lower courts. She said she welcomed the commission’s recognition of the need for tougher sanctions on those who abused the system by not turning up, but claimed even more needed to be done to make sure justice was served. She said: "Again, we have heard howls of protest from some when we have raised the prospect of trials in absence in these cases. However, I believe trial in absence for those who breach bail should be more widely available in our non-jury courts."

John Scott, the chairman of the Scottish Centre for Human Rights, claimed the proposals would create a legal minefield and lead to sentences being passed against suspects with genuine explanations for not being in court. He also expressed concerns that such legislation would also lead to a new raft of appeals under the ECHR.

He added: "From a legal perspective suggestions that suspects could be sentenced if they don’t appear in court is a potential minefield and a precedent that could create serious breaches of human rights, particularly considering bailed suspects often have genuine mitigating circumstances for not being in court.

"This is especially true when you consider many of the accused who appear in sheriff courts have a background of drug abuse, alcoholism and mental issues, all problems that can lead to the accused being unable to appear in court. There would also be scope, from the perspective of those sentenced, to challenge any punishment handed down by the court in their absence under the European Convention of Human Rights."

Annabel Goldie, the Tories’ justice spokeswoman, said protecting the public, not clearing the prisons, should be paramount. She said: "The protection of the public demands that potentially dangerous criminals should not be at liberty, even if tagged, if they pose a risk."

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The worst recent case of a suspect offending while on bail involved a Kilmarnock man, Patrick Docherty, who was bailed after being accused of beating a 91-year-old Ayrshire woman, Margaret Irvine, to death at her home in Galston last year.

Docherty, who was jailed for 25 years last month for the murder of the pensioner, embarked on a crime spree while at liberty.