Mental Welfare Concerns for Female Offenders

 This report again underlines the shockingly high rates of victimisation and abuse that women offenders have experienced (half had experienced violent relationships and 73% had experienced sexual abuse).

The Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland has published a report on the mental health of women detained by the criminal courts. (http://www.mwcscot.org.uk/media/190441/women_offenders_final_report.pdf ) The report followed that of the Commission on Women Offenders, which highlighted the worryingly high incidence of mental health problems among the female prisoner population in Scotland. The MWCS report considered women offenders in both hospital and prison settings and looked in detail at the use of drugs and alcohol, contact with children and families, and domestic violence and abuse. Among its findings the Commission noted that “Women charged with incidents of violent and disruptive behaviour may have underlying mental health difficulties. Good assessments and appropriate alternatives to custody should be routinely available to the courts.” It also found that the women who were seen in a hospital setting received more support than those in prison. In relation to contact with family the report recommended that support to prevent family breakdown should be provided and suggested that technology such as Skype should be available to enable women to maintain contact with their children. The researchers found that most of the women in prison had at least 10, and some as many as 30, previous offences. This report again underlines the shockingly high rates of victimisation and abuse that women offenders have experienced (half had experienced violent relationships and 73% had experienced sexual abuse). As the report concludes, women’s prison service provision in Scotland is undergoing change; it is challenged to make appropriate changes in response to the clear evidence about women’s offending and women offenders.

 Dinah Aitken, SCCCJ, May 2014

Legal Aid: A national treasure?

Yearly, as SLAB publishes its annual report on legal aid expenditure, the press likes to highlight the highest paid individuals and firms from the criminal legal aid budget. The legal aid budget is rightly a matter of public comment as it involves public money, but even though some individuals earn at the higher end of the scale, most do not. Legal Aid is a very bureaucratic system and since it went online most of the bureaucracy falls to be dealt with by the firms applying for legal aid on behalf of their clients. This work is not paid for and has no doubt saved the scheme a sizeable sum since its introduction. The wider point, though, is whether the public treasures legal aid or begrudges its cost? The Law Society of Scotland has published a poll, conducted for it by Ipsos MORI, in which 83% of the public polled (n1000) expressed concern that if the legal aid budget is cut, the poorest members of society would be worst affected, 81% agreed that legal aid is a price worth paying for, regardless of cost, and only 10% thought that legal aid is a waste of public money. There are some important changes to the whole justice system under contemplation at present and it is vital that the public is engaged with these, and doesn’t perceive the debates as ones in which legal experts are simply trying to preserve their own self-interest. This small but significant survey, in which legal aid is identified as something of a national treasure, offers evidence that principles of justice are, in fact, highly valued in society. The report is available here

Video Conferencing in Prisons

The Scottish Legal Aid Board and Scottish Prison Service have joined forces to enable solicitors to consult with their clients in prison using video conferencing. A pilot in just two prisons has been extended to six prisons and will involve 25/30 solicitor firms. The pilot will run for three months from October and will then be evaluated to see if it could be rolled out more widely. Details of the pilot can be found here – http://www.slab.org.uk/providers/mailshots/newsfeed/Videoconferencing

Lack of reform to stop criminal records for children in Scotland

A group of charities representing children and young people has asked the Scottish Government to reconsider the issue of the age of criminal responsibility in Scotland. Although we have raised the minimum age for criminal prosecution to 12 years, criminal responsibility, and thus the potential to acquire a criminal record, starts at age 8.

Scotland therefore has one of the lowest ages of criminal responsibility worldwide as elsewhere in the world the age ranges from 6 (in Mexico) to 18 (in Columbia).

One study looked at 90 countries and calculated the mean average age of criminal responsibility as 12.5 years. Of the 90 countries only 12 had a lower age of criminal responsibility than in Scotland (excluding 4 that have no stated minimum). The UNCRC has previously recommended that the age should be raised both here and in England and Wales (where it is 10 years). Campaigners suggest that the current Criminal Justice Bill presents an opportunity for the Scottish Government to address this issue.

Dinah Aitken, SCCCJ.