Double Jeopardy (Scotland) Bill

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

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Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative

It is appropriate that the final debate in this session should deal with an important legal principle. The principle of the rule against double jeopardy has been enshrined in Scots law down the centuries. It would be oppressive if we lived in a society in which the Crown or the prosecution service had carte blanche to prosecute time after time. No one in the Parliament would support that, but it is understandable that there have been objections from legal purists and scholars that what we are doing is perhaps not appropriate. Much as I respect them, I dismiss those objections. How could we, as politicians, explain to the public that people who walk free can remain free after they have admitted committing serious crimes or if their acquittals are found to have been tainted as a result of jury nobbling or coercion? We could not explain that away and it is therefore perfectly correct that the Government and the Parliament seek to change the law.

It is important that we relate what we are doing today to our contemporary circumstances. We are seeking to underline the fact that new evidence can now be brought forward that could only have been dreamed about 20 or even 10 years ago. Forensic science has improved and DNA technology now enables prosecutors and the police to deal with matters that could not have been considered some years ago.

We also seek to remedy the problem of tainted acquittals, many of which result from serious and organised crime. Members had better believe that those who engage in such crime are serious and organised—they will coerce and threaten jurors and we cannot have that.

At the same time, we have built into the bill the appropriate protections to ensure fairness. The Government has accepted the view that I put forward, which was shared by others, that the general new-evidence exception should be restricted to cases dealt with in the High Court. That will deal with homicides, serious sexual assaults and other offences for which a high-tariff sentence could be expected. The public have the right to expect that such cases will be prosecuted.

There is also a provision whereby a decision to allow a reprosecution can be made only after the Lord Advocate has applied to the Scottish court of criminal appeal and a bench of three judges has decided that that is the appropriate route to take. That is surely a protection in itself. I do not imagine that there will be a rush of such cases. If the experience in England is replicated, not only will there not be a plethora of such cases, there will be very few of them indeed, and that is as it should be.

On more minor matters, the Crown has the option of prosecuting on a charge of attempting to pervert the course of justice, and that is the way forward.

Some members have said some very kind words about me during the debate, and I appreciate that very much indeed. Perhaps uncharacteristically, I propose to say some kind words myself. [Laughter.] First, I thank my staff: the Conservative researcher Erin Boyle; Gillian McPherson, who has done a huge amount of work on the legislation that the Justice Committee has considered over the past two years; and, in particular, my parliamentary secretary, Sandra Robinson, who has not only put up with me for the best part of 12 years but done so cheerfully, efficiently and effectively.

I turn to my political colleagues. Some cynic once said that in politics you do not make many friends, but you certainly increase the number and quality of your enemies. I have not found that to be so. I thank the Presiding Officer for his friendship over the years—for more years than either of us would like to remember. Robert Brown said that our political careers have run in tandem but, of course, he tried to puncture my bike way back in 1976, when he fought to prevent me from being elected in the council by-election, my success in which led on to my work as an MSP.

I have old friends and I have newer friends. When I came to the Parliament, I met Cathie Craigie on the Social Inclusion, Housing and Voluntary Sector Committee. I admired her common sense then and I still admire it. Later on, I got to know others, such as Stewart Maxwell, Mike Pringle, James Kelly and Richard Baker, with whom I have no doubt that I will continue to fight like cat and dog on the various media channels. I thank Margo MacDonald for her friendship over the years—Margo is an incomparable individual—and I thank my group colleagues, particularly John Lamont, who have been tremendously supportive over the past four years.

It has been a privilege to serve in the Parliament, which is a quite different and much better place than it was 12 years ago. It is a matter for regret that some members are unlikely to come back, particularly in the case of Robert Brown, whose outstanding contribution the Parliament will miss a great deal, but to all my colleagues I express my best wishes for the future and thank them for their fellowship and friendship over the past 12 years. [Applause.]