Like others, I am very pleased to speak in this stage 3 debate on the Double Jeopardy (Scotland) Bill. It has taken us some time to get to this point, but I am pleased that at decision time—the last decision time of this session—we will vote to enact one of the Scottish Conservatives’ key manifesto pledges from 2007.
It is important that we record our gratitude to the Scottish Law Commission and the Justice Committee for their hard work in bringing us to where we are today on this subject. The Scottish Government also deserves credit for taking the first step in 2007 by inviting the Scottish Law Commission to review the law in this area.
There have been some disagreements during the passage of the bill, but the process has generally been marked by consensus and mature debate from all sides in the chamber.
At this point, I pay tribute to my colleague Bill Aitken; as Richard Baker pointed out, Bill will be standing down from Parliament and will be making his final contribution to Parliament later this morning. Bill Aitken has been a loyal servant to the people of the city of Glasgow for many decades and, more recently, he has been a formidable convener of the Justice Committee. On a personal level, I will certainly miss his advice and constant support and I am sure that everybody wishes him well for his retirement. [Applause.]
At stage 1, several members detailed the history of the double jeopardy principle. They highlighted the fact that it is not a technical term in Scots law but a principle or rule that has never been formally codified. The principle is good, as the finality of criminal verdicts allows the individuals who are involved in a trial to get on with their lives in the knowledge that the matter has been resolved. It also provides the more general benefit of retaining public confidence in the court system. The double jeopardy rule limits the state’s reach over individuals’ lives and protects individuals from the stress of repeat trials.
However, as I said in the stage 1 debate, every good principle ought to have exceptions. Many people consider it to be common sense that, when compelling new evidence of guilt arises that was not available at the time of the original trial, the Crown should be able to bring a new trial. However, as such a step is serious, it is right that it should occur only in exceptional circumstances and for the most serious crimes; otherwise, we risk eroding the integrity of our courts and public confidence in the wider justice system.
The principles in the bill reflect the interests of not just the accused but the justice system and wider society. As we have seen, it is important for decisions of courts to be upheld and seen to be conclusive. However, it is clear that exceptional circumstances could arise, and our justice system must be capable of dealing with such exceptions.
We believe that the principle of double jeopardy is right and should continue. However, it should be reformed and restated in Scots law to allow exceptions when new evidence in the form of an admission of guilt or other new and compelling evidence emerges. When we allow exceptions to the principle, we must put safeguards in place. We are satisfied that the bill strikes the right balance between ensuring that we have a fair and effective justice system and protecting the rights of victims and of individuals who are accused of crime. I am pleased that the Government introduced the bill, which the Scottish Conservatives will support at decision time.