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Tuesday, 3 December, 2002, 20:23 GMT
Police worry over sectarian move
Old Firm fans
Old Firm games can trigger sectarian clashes
Moves to change the law on sectarianism in Scotland could result in fewer convictions, police have warned.

MSPs on the Justice 2 Committee are considering an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill which would introduce tougher penalties for crimes motivated by religious hatred.

John McLean, of the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland (Acpos), said any legal changes would make it more difficult to prove an aggravated offence.

Liberal Democrat MSP Donald Gorrie is seeking to make sectarianism an offence and punishable with a jail term of up to seven years.

Donald Gorrie MSP
Donald Gorrie: "Question of aggravation"

Mr McLean said a law change would pose a problem of definition - whether a person's actions or words were sectarian or political.

Acpos believed the current law was "adequate" to deal with sectarian crimes, he added.

"If you have an aggravation which is enshrined in statute then that would have to be proven before the court - beyond reasonable doubt," he said.

'Heavy onus'

"At the present time evidence can be led and circumstances can be brought to the attention of the court that doesn't need that full standard of proof.

"So you could have less people being found guilty of offences for the aggravated offence."

Mr McLean said a law change would put a "heavy onus" on police officers.

But Mr Gorrie said while some cases of aggravation may fail, the majority would not escape a breach of the peace charge.

Legislative concern

He said: "It's quite clear that the court can come to a conclusion on the breach of the peace separately from the question of the aggravation, so I don't see that we lose any convictions."

Mr Gorrie said when the 1998 Crime and Disorder legislation was going though the Commons he was unhappy with the content.

He said the section on racially-aggravated harassment specifically said harassment because of a person's religious grouping was not an offence.

See also:

16 Oct 02 | Scotland
13 Oct 02 | Scotland
07 Oct 02 | Scotland
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