Page last updated at 15:37 GMT, Monday, 18 August 2008 16:37 UK

Minister defends 'secret fines'

Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill
Mr MacAskill said it was not for him to direct the Crown on the matter

Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill has defended secret guidelines telling prosecutors which offences should be dealt with by fixed penalty fines.

Defence lawyers have claimed the Crown Office should reveal the guidelines to allay suspicions that serious offences are being treated too lightly.

A BBC Scotland request for the guidance to be published had been refused.

Mr MacAskill said the Crown did not publish guidelines for good reason and that the right balance had been struck.

He told BBC Radio Scotland it was not for him to direct the Crown on the matter.

He said of the lawyers' criticism: "What we have to look at is the reality on the ground and not the special pleading from vested interests.

Our suspicion is that the real reason these guidelines are not being disclosed is that the public would be frankly disgusted at the way in which they are treating cases
Colin Bissett
Defence lawyer

"I think the correct balance is served for the public."

Fiscal fines are part of the summary justice reforms introduced by the Scottish Government earlier this year.

They are supposed to deal with 'low level' offences like vandalism and breach of the peace and to ease the pressure on the courts.

Mr MacAskill, a former defence solicitor, said: "We know what is meant to be dealt with in summary justice reforms - that it should be less serious offences, that it will not be domestic violence, that it will not be serious assaults, it will not be sexual assaults.

"We can't go back to the situation where we routinely had lawyers tendering pleas of not guilty, and anything up to 18 months later the accused put their hands up and had a fine imposed for a relatively minor offence.

"This isn't just about looking after the interests of lawyers for the accused.

"We have to fundamentally look after the interests of our community."

'Three-stitch rule'

Defence lawyer Colin Bissett told The Investigation, a BBC Radio Scotland documentary which looked into the matter: "We have heard all sorts of rumours as to what these guidelines are - famously the three-stitch rule.

"If someone is the victim of an assault, but the resulting injury does not require three stitches or more, then its appropriate for a person to be issued with a fixed penalty.

"Our suspicion is that it is in the guidelines and the real reason why these guidelines are not being disclosed is that the public would be frankly disgusted at the way in which they are treating cases of this nature."

Labour's justice spokeswoman, Pauline McNeill, said the justice system was not putting victims first.

She added: "Justice is simply not being served properly and defence lawyers are now speaking out with just cause.

"When the proposals for fiscal fines went through the parliament MSPs were told that only a fraction of cases would be diverted from prosecution in court, but that's clearly not the case.

"I am deeply concerned about anecdotal evidence that cases are being diverted from prosecution if the victim has three stitches or less."

Pauline McNeill
Labour's Pauline McNeill said the justice system needed to change

She said ministers must now look at how cases are handled by the courts.

But the Crown Office head of policy, John Logue, defended the non-publication of the guidelines, saying these contained detailed guidance and it would be wrong to disclose to potential offenders how cases would be dealt with.

Denying the three-stitches claim, Mr Logue told the documentary: "That rumour could really only be suggested by someone who did not understand the way in which these decisions are taken.

"You take into account the nature of the injury that's caused - but in no way would you as a prosecutor take a decision based on whether it's a particular number of stitches or a different number of stitches."

Scottish information commissioner Kevin Dunion said he had no power to release the guidelines to the BBC under the Freedom of Information Act.

He explained: "It is not the case that I have looked at the Crown Office guidelines and refused to release them.

"I simply have no power to come to such a view or to make such a determination in any case involving information held by the Lord Advocate."

You can listen again to the BBC Investigation on fiscal fines on the iPlayer

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