Coronavirus (COVID-19) - justice: Cabinet Secretary speech 24 March 2020

Speech given by Cabinet Secretary Humza Yousaf MSP to the Scottish Parliament on Tuesday 24 March 2020.


Presiding officer, the word unprecedented has been used many times over the last few weeks, however it simply does not do justice to the times we now find ourselves in.

Our justice agencies, front-line professionals and other staff deal day-in and day-out with emergency situations and unexpected events.  However, even for them, the challenges raised by the Covid-19 outbreak have never been seen before. 

I cannot praise enough the work that has been undertaken by these agencies and individual staff, in both planning for and responding to the Covid-19 outbreak.

I will set out this afternoon the approach that we in Government, along with our key justice partners, are adopting under three broad headings:

  • maintaining public confidence and safety;
  • supporting and responding to the health advice; and finally
  • taking necessary, but difficult, decisions

In terms of maintaining public confidence and safety, on the first of these themes, the Lord Advocate has already set out his and the Chief Constable’s priorities and has emphasised the continuing commitment to keeping people safe from harm and dealing effectively with those who break the law. 

Let me reassure the Chamber and the people of Scotland that alongside the essential work of our health professionals, Police Scotland the Scottish Fire & Rescue Service and our wider partners will continue their work to protect the public and communities in their homes. 

While our justice agencies continue to fulfil their essential role, it is important that they, like all of us, follow the health advice to help contain and reduce the spread of the Covid-19 virus. That is not easy.

Many of our justice interactions take place in public and require people to come together in particular locations. 

It is vital that we are not placing people at inappropriate risk those who work for our justice agencies, and therefore undermining the impact of the public health advice.

Last week, following agreement between the Lord President and the Lord Advocate, the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service announced a programme of immediate changes to the operation of the criminal courts.

A range of other criminal or civil businesses will proceed administratively through correspondence or by telephone conference, etc. We will use digital means where possible to take forward cases and business. But clearly, as the Lord Advocate has set out, the measures put forward by the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service will impact on court business.

Other justice organisations are implementing their own contingency and business continuity plans in response to the health advice on social distancing.

The Minister for Community Safety is also considering the impact of changes, including to court programmes, for solicitors and advocates, and has been working very proactively with the Scottish Legal Aid Board.  And can I thank the Scottish Legal Aid Board for thus far showing a great degree of flexibility in the the support that they have already announced. Further measures are proactively being explored.

In terms of victims, we know this will be an anxious time for victims. We know that generally of course, if it approaches potentially court proceedings, we know the anxiety that can follow for victims of crime – even moreso perhaps in the circumstances that we find ourselves.

So we have been speaking with a number of organisations that help to deal with and support victims, such as Victim Support Scotland, Rape Crisis Scotland and Scottish Women’s Aid.

In terms of the Prison Service we have in place robust contingency plans for dealing with emergency situations.

The SPS’s national pandemic plan has been implemented and is being overseen by their National Coronavirus Response Group.

Local governors in charge are overseeing the delivery of their own local plans, tailored to the needs of individual establishments and informed by the latest expert medical advice.

As in the community, effective communication is absolutely vital in preventing the further spread of the virus.  The SPS has communicated with every single prisoner, telling them how to avoid infection and advising how the outbreak will impact on their daily routine. 

Those people in custody who are displaying any of the symptoms of Covid-19 are self-isolating – as, of course, are prison staff. 

The SPS has established clinically led-protocols for testing, and I have a been assured that our prisons have secured sufficient access to personal protective equipment for staff, consistent with those protocols.

During this fast moving situation, the prison service has been considering all the necessary steps that need to taken to reduce the risk of the virus spreading. Effective from today, the Scottish Prison Service will be suspending visits to our prisons.   This was a decision not taken lightly with our prison service and was communicated to all staff, prisoners and partners yesterday evening.

We recognise that maintaining family contact, perhaps more so now than ever, is crucial during these challenging times. SPS is working on other options as a matter of urgency in which we can support and maintain family relationships including establishing a dedicated Family Helpline, and of course we will look at all digital and telecommunication options.

More difficult operational decisions may lie ahead and we are working urgently with the Scottish Prison Service and other partners to help mitigate, where at all possible, the impact of these changes. I want to express my personal thanks to front-line prison officers, NHS staff and others who work in our prisons for their efforts in what is always a complex and challenging environment, but even moreso in the face of the Covid-19 outbreak.

Part of what makes the current situation so unsettling and difficult is the escalating nature and scale of the challenge.

For many people, there is also an extreme sense of uncertainty about how long the disruption to our normal lives may last. 

Part of the function of our justice system is to provide clarity and stability for individuals and communities, especially in times of uncertainty.

This is especially important at a time when the capacity of our frontline services will themselves be impacted by the measures introduced to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 virus.

As Members are aware, the UK Government has published an emergency Bill to provide additional powers to protect lives and respond effectively to the Covid-19 outbreak. Following dialogue between the four UK administrations and joint advice from the four Chief Medical Officers, many of the provisions apply on a UK-wide basis.

The Legislative Consent Motion for those provisions that apply relevant to devolved areas here in Scotland, of course, will be considered by Members today.

This includes powers allowing the police in Scotland to support and enforce public health measures, including powers to detain people and put them in appropriate isolation facilities if necessary to protect public health.

The Bill also gives Scottish Ministers powers to restrict or prohibit events or gatherings where incidence or transmission of coronavirus constitutes a serious and imminent threat to public health.

I hope that good citizenship and the continued co-operation of event organisers means that we have little cause to invoke such powers. 

Crucially, there are sufficient safeguards to ensure that any requirement or restrictions placed on individuals through these powers must be necessary and must be proportionate.

The measures will also be time limited.

The UK Bill is likely to be just the first tranche of measures to enable our key services to change and respond in an effective manner to deal with this outbreak.

The Bill also gives Scottish Ministers the power to make public health regulations to enforce the measures announced by the First Minister last night.  Breaching the restrictions will be a criminal offence which could result in a fine or other enforcement action.

These measures are unprecedented but we must take this action now to save lives. We do not do so lightly.

We do not want to have to use these new powers and we are working on the basis most people will act as we’ve set out.

Over recent days, we have been engaging closely with key justice organisations and other partners to consider what further legislative measures may be required specific to devolved services here in Scotland.  Further information about these measures will be shared in the future.

Measures will be limited to ones that we in Government and our partners consider are absolutely necessary in order to respond effectively and promptly to the particular exceptional circumstances of the this outbreak.  Our clear intention is that those measures will be subject to appropriate scrutiny by this Parliament and will be time limited.  But let me be clear, all measures that are necessary to keep our citizens safe – be they in our Prisons or outwith – will have to be considered.

Underpinning our approach will be our continuing absolute commitment to the rule of law and to protecting individuals and our communities from harm.

I am confident that Members will join me in expressing our continuing thanks for those who work within our justice system at this time of significant and unprecedented  challenge

We will continue to work to provide them with the support and capability they need to protect lives and maintain confidence in Scotland’s justice system.


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