New measures will help ensure the justice system can operate effectively and ease pressure on local authorities as the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic continues.
Public health restrictions introduced since the outbreak last March have significantly impacted upon unpaid work – the most common element of Community Payback Orders (CPOs) – that can be undertaken safely. Most recently, the Chief Medical Officer has written to Local Authorities recommending that face-to-face unpaid work orders are suspended in those Councils under enhanced Level 4 stay at home restrictions.
Concerns have been raised by Social Work Scotland, the Scottish Association of Social Work and Community Justice Scotland that community justice services are at risk of being overwhelmed; that action is necessary to ensure existing orders can be delivered safely within a reasonable timescale and new orders can be started. Scottish Government analysis suggests that if court business was to return to pre-covid levels in March while the capacity to deliver unpaid work remained very constrained, there could be in excess of 1 million hours outstanding by July if no other action is taken.
The Scottish Government is laying regulations to reduce the unpaid work element imposed in existing CPOs by 35%, with the exception of those imposed for domestic abuse, sexual offences, or stalking.
Those categories of CPOs have been excluded to mitigate potential risks to future reporting of these offences, recognising ongoing work over many years by victims organisations, justice partners, government and others to remove the barriers that exist in relation to those offences.
Ruth Maguire MSP said: “While public health measures have been essential to prevent the spread of Covid, it’s important that justice is seen to be carried out for victims and communities. The measures being taken by the Scottish Government are proportionate and will help to address the backlog of unpaid work, balancing the need to protect the public and ensure that those on community orders complete the majority of their sentences.”
Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf said: “Scotland’s justice social workers and other community justice staff play a critical – though often unseen – role in ensuring the delivery of community-based sentences that, in recent years, have contributed to record low reconviction rates which in turn help keep crime down and communities safe, with fewer victims.
“The public health challenges they have faced during the pandemic were recognised by Parliament when it approved provisions in the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act to allow community orders, including unpaid work, to be varied if necessary.
“While I acknowledge that some may have concerns, I can assure victims of crime and others that the justice system continues to hold those who commit offences to account.”
These measures will focus specifically on unpaid work or other activity requirements only, with all other requirements remaining in place. This means individuals who require supervision or specific interventions to address their offending and its causes, will continue to be supervised, monitored and supported by justice social work and other relevant agencies.
The Justice Secretary advised the Justice Committee in August that he would consider whether provisions within the emergency Coronavirus Act, previously approved by parliament, needed to be used on a proportionate and limited basis. This followed concerns raised by Social Work Scotland in June.
The draft regulations will be laid on Friday 29 January and will be subject to scrutiny and approval by Parliament.
- Unpaid work is one of nine potential elements of CPOs, with local authorities responsible for delivering the orders and returning individuals to court for review if progress is not satisfactory. The successful completion rate for CPOs in Scotland was 68% in 2018-19 and has generally been around 70% over the last seven years – consistently higher than completion rates for the orders they replaced. Scotland’s communities have benefitted from around 8 million hours of unpaid work carried out by people serving community sentences since 2011.
- The Scottish Government established a Recover, Renew, Transform (RRT) programme for the justice system to recover essential services and consider the potential for reform, ensuring a resilient, effective justice system now and for the future. Social Work Scotland is part of this work.
- The Scottish Government is providing around £60 million in 2020-21, for a range of projects to support victims and survivors of crime, including funding organisations such as Victim Support Scotland and Action Against Stalking. Recognising the impact that trial delays – caused by necessary public health restrictions – have on victims, witnesses and accused, £12 million has also been provided to the Scottish Courts & Tribunals Service to establish the UK’s first remote High Court and Sheriff jury centres to restore pre-Covid court capacity, with a further £3 million to develop court technology.