Emergency powers for release a ‘last resort’.
New measures to ensure justice can take place while minimising social contact and the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) have been announced.
The Coronavirus Bill introduces powers to allow hearings across criminal and civil courts and tribunals to take place remotely.
The Bill also includes temporary emergency powers to ensure prisons continue to safely operate during cases of significant staff absence caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Powers relating to the emergency release of prisoners, similar to the position in England and Wales, would require secondary legislation and be subject to further parliamentary approval.
Those who are undertaking unpaid work as part of a Community Payback Order (CPO) will see their time limits relaxed to allow this to be continued once social distancing measures have been lifted.
Proposals to potentially enable trials without juries during the outbreak have been postponed. The Scottish Government will now work with relevant stakeholders regarding this temporary measure to consider any other practical or legislative solutions to this complex issue.
Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf said:
“These unprecedented circumstances require unprecedented steps to be taken, and we have aimed to strike a balance with the powers outlined in this Bill to ensure continuity across our courts, prisons and wider justice system as we respond to this public health emergency.
“These measures are temporary and designed as a practical response to social distancing requirements, harnessing technology to allow hearings to take place remotely. We will work constructively with the legal profession, victims’ organisations, political parties and the judiciary to consider the best way to enable solemn trials to progress while social distancing requirements are in place.
“Emergency powers to allow for release are included only as a last resort to ensure our valued prison staff are able to concentrate efforts on those that present the greatest risk to society, in the event there is a high level of staff absence due to COVID-19. The Bill specifically excludes categories of high-risk prisoners and, if any such release under these provisions was to take place, it would be subject to an appropriate level of risk assessment. Public safety is a central consideration and, before using these powers, we will in the first instance look at the existing provision for Home Detention Curfew.
“People who are being rehabilitated in the community should not face unfair penalisation where they are unable to comply with Community Payback Orders for reasons outwith their control and the relaxation of timescales around unpaid work in particular will ensure this does not happen.
“Keeping crime down and communities safe remains our priority, although it is clear that as with other aspects of life there are some areas of our justice system that cannot continue as normal while social distancing rules remain in place – for all of our safety.”