Compassionate release: changes needed?

Reforming Scotland’s judicial system is something that does need to be done.  There are flaws in it like all systems.  One such area has received an inordinate amount of attention recently, and that is on the issue of compassionate release from prison.

The rules on compassionate release from prison are good, in my opinion.  I think that they serve the purpose that they are intended.  However, one thing I would change about these rules is who takes the decision.  The decision to release the man convicted of the Lockerbie Bomber was seen by many at home and abroad as a political decision; taken with the interests of Oil and trade links between the UK and Libya.  That was always going to be the case when a Minister was taking the decision.

The decision to release someone on compassionate grounds should be separate from the executive; after all we are supposed to have separation of powers in this country.  Normally, decisions to release someone early from prison are taken by the parole board; however, in the case of compassionate decisions I feel it would be best if a bench of three or five High Court judges were to take the decision.

Why the Court and not the parole board?  Well, the answer to that is simple.  The judiciary are entirely separate from the Executive and it is much harder for the executive to influence the judiciary.  The parole board on the other hand is an executive agency of the Scottish Government – in other words the Executive have more chance of influencing their decision.  This is not to say that they would, but it would be easier for people to make allegations of a political motive where the parole board had taken the decision rather than the judiciary.

However, in saying that I do have concerns about the Judiciary’s independence from the Executive (especially in this case) given the verdict that was delivered by three high court judges on evidence that a jury is unlikely to have convicted on.

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