Double Jeopardy (Scotland) Bill

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at on 22 March 2011.

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Photo of Mike Pringle Mike Pringle Liberal Democrat

As my colleague Robert Brown has already indicated, the Liberal Democrats will support the Government’s Double Jeopardy (Scotland) Bill. We are glad to do so.

I associate myself with the comments that others made about Bill Aitken, who was a fine convener of the Justice Committee. I am not sure what he will do when he moves on, but he will clearly have a lot more time to do the things that he wants to do in his private life and to consider other things. I congratulate him on the great job that he did on the Justice Committee.

I also thank Robert Brown, who is one of the best Liberal Democrats in the Parliament. He will be sorely missed by our group if he is not re-elected. I thank him for all the help that he has given me over the past four years in the justice portfolio. As a lawyer, he comes with a slightly different perspective from mine, but his comments and help over the past four years have been welcome.

I also congratulate the rest of the Justice Committee, which has—along with the minister—guided the bill through its various stages and scrutinised it extremely closely. Today is the result of that scrutiny. Between them, the committee and the minister have produced an extremely solid bill.

I also congratulate the committee clerks on the excellent job that they have done, not only during the bill’s progress but over the past four years. We all know that, without our committee clerks, we would struggle seriously, particularly when trying to produce stage 1 reports.

The ministerial team that has guided justice issues over the past four years has also done a good job. Liberal Democrats have perhaps not always agreed with the ministers and perhaps do not agree with them on one or two matters, but justice is without doubt one of the biggest portfolios and to tackle it for four years is a huge job. I wonder whether, when the ministers are re-elected—I am confident that they both will be—they will look for a different portfolio.

Double jeopardy is a procedural defence that forbids the defendant being tried again on the same or similar charges following a legitimate acquittal or conviction. The rule against double jeopardy is a fundamental principle of Scots law that provides essential protection by preventing the state from procedurally prosecuting an individual twice for the same act.

Double jeopardy has always been extremely complex and often sensitive, so we welcome the bill and the clarification that it provides by setting out in statute the rule against it as part of a modern criminal justice system. Perhaps, when the rule was introduced, the criminal justice system was not quite so modern, but we now have a modern system.

We support the setting out of exceptions to the rule against double jeopardy—for example, when the original trial was tainted by jury tampering or when the acquitted individual has since confessed to the crime.

Perhaps the biggest debate on the bill has been whether a new-evidence exception should be applied retrospectively. That was the most complex issue that the Justice Committee had to deal with. Stewart Maxwell, in his final speech in this session, made a very good case for why that is the right way to go. Our view is that it would be arbitrary and unsatisfactory if acquittals that occurred before a certain date were final while those that occurred after it could be looked at again in the event of new evidence emerging. As my colleague Robert Brown said, in this day and age, given the advances in science in relation to dead bodies, it is only sensible that if solid new evidence, particularly DNA evidence, is found for an existing case, even if the case is old—it could be a considerable number of years old—the case should be brought back in front of the court so that justice is served.

Stewart Maxwell again put his finger on the main issue: victims. Victims will find the bill to be the best way forward. In the cases that we are discussing, a victim would surely want to be satisfied that the perpetrator of the crime, even if it was some years ago, might finally be brought to justice. That would give the victim or victims, or the relations of the victims—perhaps children or grandchildren—closure. I agree with Richard Baker on the point about victims. Retrospectivity is an important aspect of the bill and it is the right way forward for victims.

There has been very little change to the bill between stage 2 and now. The Government lodged a considerable number of stage 2 amendments, which were all agreed by the committee without division. The Liberal Democrats also welcome the amendments that the cabinet secretary lodged for today. As James Kelly and others said, that is perhaps quite unusual at stage 3, but Kenny MacAskill, the cabinet secretary, realised that the amendments were necessary to finalise the bill and make it a really good, solid piece of legislation.

I am pleased that the Liberal Democrats are firmly behind the bill and will support it at the final decision time of this session.