As we enter the final hours before the dissolution of Parliament, I have no doubt that justice issues will be some of the most hotly debated in the weeks ahead. It is an area in which there are significant disagreements between parties. Where we cannot agree, we should be clear about that and debate the issues fully.
It is good that on the last day of this session of Parliament, our final justice debate—indeed, our final debate—should be an opportunity to reflect on an important area of agreement, which is the decision to reform our outdated laws on double jeopardy. Considering that we are talking about a change to 800 years of Scots law, I admit to having some reservations about the fact that the debate is only a short one. However, I concede that the stage 2 consideration of the bill was notable for its high degree of consensus, to which the cabinet secretary referred. The Labour Party, too, was keen that the law should be changed before the end of this parliamentary session. We believe that victims and families who have not seen justice served should not face further uncertainty or wait longer for a change in the law. We welcome our being able to pass this law today.
The change that is represented by the bill maintains the correct balance between the rights of an accused and those of a victim of crime. The bill reconfirms the principle of double jeopardy in statute, while ensuring that in future there can be new proceedings against the accused in exceptional cases in which there are clear reasons for believing that justice was not done in the original trial.
Exceptional cases and cases involving serious crimes are the right parameters. On that basis, we supported the approach of the Scottish Government at stage 2 that the changes should be restricted to High Court decisions. Notwithstanding the concerns that were expressed by Robert Brown at stage 2 about the issue of admissions, we appreciate that the Government’s intention is extremely clear: that in this area, too, the application of the new provisions should be with regard to serious cases.
We should not expect a high number of cases to be affected by the bill, but those that are affected will be serious. We all know that there are people in this country who, with good reason, believe that they have not received justice for great wrongs committed against them and their loved ones. People who are guilty of serious crimes have evaded justice in Scotland. If we can properly rectify injustices in which killers have walked free from court or people who are guilty of serious offences have bragged of their culpability after acquittal, we should do so. That is why we were persuaded of the case for the legislation to have retrospective effect. Prosecutors now have access to new technologies such as DNA evidence that can show proof of criminality even in cases that are many years old. That offers hope in cases where victims and families are still waiting to see justice done for the crimes committed against them and where the Crown has the appropriate evidence to seek new proceedings. I am sure that in cases where the Crown believes that it is appropriate to do so, it will work diligently with the families and the victims involved.
The experience of the reforms that were made to the law in England and Wales in 2003 can give us confidence that the changes that we propose are as proportionate as they are important. The reforms to the law on double jeopardy in England and Wales have not created a situation in which accused persons are routinely retried for the same offence. Although those laws were reformed in 2003, it was not until last year that Mark Weston became the first person to face a second murder trial in England, following the discovery of new forensic evidence. He was convicted of the murder of Vikki Thompson in 1995. The provisions have been used sparingly, but where they have been used, serious injustices have been rectified and they have doubtless been of huge importance to all those affected.
This is our last justice debate in this session of Parliament. None of us can be certain of our return in the next session, although I notice that the cabinet secretary is standing on a list as well as for a constituency, which I would say is a sensible precaution on his part. However, we know that Bill Aitken is leaving us. We owe Bill a great debt of gratitude for his contribution to this Parliament, particularly as convener of the Justice Committee, and I wish him very well for the future.
Not through his own doing but because of the spectacular unpopularity of the Deputy Prime Minister, we might not be joined by Robert Brown in the next session. Robert and I have not always seen eye to eye, but we should all recognise his hugely important and informed contribution to our consideration of justice policy in this Parliament. I for one—I am sure that I speak for our whole group—would very much like to thank him for that and to wish him well should he not be here next session. [Applause.]
Of course, Deputy Presiding Officer, in the next session we shall also miss you and your now-famous catchphrase, “The member’s time is up. Please turn off their microphone.” I am moving speedily to a conclusion.