Probing questions come thick and fast as students take advanced legal route

26th November 2010 at 00:00
Modern studies candidates put MSPs on the spot after they witness a new domestic abuse law in the making

The modern studies pupils crammed into the Scottish Parliament's committee room have opted to specialise in the "law and order" option of Advanced Higher, and today they are witnessing a new law being crafted.

The eight MSPs on the justice committee are discussing the domestic abuse bill, which will make it easier for courts to grant non-harassment orders and create a new offence of breaching a domestic abuse-related interdict, punishable with up to five years in jail. The bill, put forward by MSP Rhoda Grant, also asks for legal aid to be given to victims, regardless of their financial circumstances.

This is more controversial, explains Scottish Parliament education officer Mary Hershaw, setting the scene for the S6 pupils. The Government is in favour of the idea of getting tougher on domestic abuse but, owing to current financial constraints, it is against the idea of putting more strain on the legal aid budget. Ten minutes later, the pupils hear the complexities of the debate.

Minister for community safety Fergus Ewing has "some sympathy with the predicament of a female who is being beaten and then has to pay to get justice". However, could it not also be argued then that means-testing for legal aid should be removed from actions involving the care of children, he asks. And would legal aid be available for other parts of the action if the pursuer was also seeking a divorce, making financial claims or seeking contact with children? If not, how would you separate them all out?

Committee member Nigel Don says that if legal aid is automatically given to pursuers, the European Convention on Human Rights might require the same for defendants. Can the country afford it?

Scottish Women's Aid is set to stage demonstrations in Glasgow and Edinburgh because public funding worth #163;7.5 million for their services (including refuge accommodation for abused women and their children) runs out in March, and its future has yet to be agreed.

Mr Ewing says: "It would be difficult for me - and it would probably get me into deep trouble - to commit to making more money available from the legal aid fund at a time when it looks as if the budgetary decisions that the Parliament will have to take shortly will lead to an expectation of some reduction in most areas of expenditure."

As one grilling ends for Mr Ewing, another begins. Immediately after the committee, pupils get the chance to question him about everything from the greatest success of the Scottish Prison Service to how spending cuts will affect the ability of the police to tackle crime.

Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill was supposed to be in the hot-seat, but he has gone to Brussels as part of the UK delegation to the justice and home affairs council. Nonetheless, this remains a fantastic opportunity, say the teachers.

Forty pupils from four schools - Clydebank High in West Dunbartonshire, Greenfaulds High in North Lanarkshire and Mackie and Ellon academies in Aberdeenshire - are involved. They are encouraged to use quotes in both their examination and their 5,000-word dissertation, so are poised to take copious notes, says Patrick Carson, principal teacher of modern studies at Clydebank.

It is also vital that they conduct primary research, explain teachers Catherine Smith, from Ellon, and Lynda Swanson, from Mackie.

"Research methods is a large part of the course, so the workshop this afternoon with a senior researcher from the Scottish Parliament Information Centre will be hugely helpful too," explains Ms Smith.

One of the greatest successes of the prison service in recent years is the end to slopping out, Mr Ewing believes. "If you serve time in prison, you are not free to walk around and enjoy life as we are," he says. "That is the primary punishment; to go beyond that and make it a humiliating experience is wrong."

He agrees with Patsy Kay, a pupil from Clydebank, that short sentences don't work and outlines the community payback scheme the Government has introduced. "It costs more to keep someone in jail than to send a child to one of the poshest public schools in Britain such as Eton," he says.

Hayley Stewart from Greenfaulds High asks about rehabilitation. The Government wants to do more, says Mr Ewing, but it's not easy: "Movement in prisons is carefully regulated, which makes it difficult to manage the time to achieve as much rehab as we would like."

Duncan Roseweir's dissertation is about community service and alternatives to prison. The Mackie Academy pupil is pleased with the answer to his question about how the Scottish Government is going to ensure the effectiveness of alternatives to prison in light of recent cuts. The minister had something to say and backed up his answers, he says.

"Prison just condemns without giving people a chance," continues Duncan. "Community service is something I find quite logical."

Jennifer Taylor from Ellon Academy is amazed her question about why female prisoners re-offend less than men generated such a full response from Mr Ewing. The minister was "not too stuck up", she says; he was "down to earth" and "genuinely interested in helping".

Karen Glennie from Mackie Academy is also happy with his answer on how spending cuts will affect police ability to tackle crime. "He showed that even if there was less police, you can still reduce crime because you have less people in offices and more out on the streets and reduce the numbers that are highly paid."

The Scottish Police Federation may take more convincing. The next day, one front page reads: "Anger at plan to cut Scottish police pay". According to the general secretary of the SPF, removing money from police pay and conditions "would smack of punishment for those who have delivered the best results in 33 years".

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