The Glasgow Bin Lorry case continued to march on this week as Michael Matheson, the Scottish Justice Secretary, announced that Legal Aid would be provided for the families seeking to bring a private prosecution against the driver, Harry Clarke.
I don’t think the private prosecution will succeed, but I don’t want to swell on the merits of the action itself here. I want to look at the decision to provide state funding to let the families make their case, and specifically, why it is a decision that should raise more questions than it so far has. I might be useful to have Matheson’s statement to refer to:
“Private prosecutions are, and should remain, exceptionally rare in Scotland. However, in light of the unique and special circumstances of this case, which raises fundamental questions that have not previously been tested in case law, Scottish Ministers believe it is in the public interest that all parties are adequately represented.
As such, Ministers have agreed to make legal aid available for the families of the Bin Lorry tragedy.
In line with human rights requirements that anybody facing potential criminal prosecution must be legally represented, legal aid will also be made available to the driver of the bin lorry, Mr Clarke, and to Mr Payne in relation to another potential private prosecution in separate case.
The issue of whether there are exceptional circumstances to justify a private prosecution is a matter for the High Court alone and do not form part of this legal aid decision.
Responsibility for deciding whether or not to prosecute an alleged criminal case in Scotland rests clearly with the Crown Office which has a strong record in prosecuting crime.
The determination is not being made on the basis that Ministers agree that there was any error in law in the decision by the Crown. The Lord Advocate has set out publicly the basis for the decision not to progress a prosecution following the Bin Lorry tragedy.”
In short, the Scottish Ministers have decided agreed that Legal Aid should be made available to the families bringing the private prosecution. They have an ability to do this under s.4(2)(c) of the Legal Aid (Scotland) Act 1986 – though it is unusual, with matters usually being handled by ever solicitor’s favourite body, the Scottish Legal Aid Board.
Matheson states that the reason this extra-ordinary step has been taken is because this of the “unique and special circumstances” of the case, and the fact it asks “fundamental questions” that haven’t previously been raised. My first question would be to ask what are the “special circumstances” and what are the “fundamental questions”?
The jurisprudence behind Private Prosecutions in Scots Law is quite clear with the Carol X case providing a hand book in itself. In short, there have to be “very special and exceptional circumstances” to allow a private person to bring a prosecution when the Crown has already declined to do so. The prosecution can’t be unfair towards the accused person; must have sufficient evidence and it must be in the public interest to prosecute.
These are considerations Prosecutors in Scotland face delay. Does the case prove? Is it in the public interest? We know, thanks to the Fatal Accident Enquiry that there is nothing the Crown Office didn’t know when it decided not to prosecute that it ought to have known. It seems there are no special circumstances.
What then of “fundamental questions”? The rules for Private Prosecution, as I’ve said, are not dubious. Whether these particular facts fit into these is a different question, but not one of fundamental judicial importance.
It’s not particularly clear what the victims’ families propose to charge Mr. Clarke with. There can’t be any questions relating to the development of Scots Criminal Law more generally – if only because we don’t know where hey would be coming from.
Unless the Justice Minister chooses to elaborate (and for reasons I’ll discuss in a second, it is unlikely a fellow Member of Parliament will ask him to), we are unlikely to gather any further information from him. So, what could it be?
From the moment the tragedy occurred, it has big news in Scotland. The media and the public have been following the case from the start. When it first became clear that the lorry-driver, Mr. Clarke, had suffered a black out and was not simply reckless, public opinion was firmly behind him. However, when the black-outs were publicly reported as being related to a previously known condition, the public and the press completely reversed. During the FIA, the the right not to incriminate yourself was deemed “170 insults to the dead” and it seemed the only way justice could be done was through prosecution. The tone was that the Crown office had messed up in deciding not to prosecute and blocking off that possibility – hence the private prosecution.
So, to stand in the way of the Private Prosecution would to deny the families of the dead their day in court. That would not produce happy headlines for the Government only 2 months out from an election.
Matheson makes clear that he isn’t predetermining the case (that is the High Court’s) and that he isn’t seeking to overturn the Lord Advocate’s decision and question the Crown Office. The difficulty going forward, however, is the message this sends out. Given that the idea of private prosecutions is – let’s be honest – pretty new to the zeitgeist, the rules around them are not clear in the public s mind. But now, the government might fund them. Why not give it a go?
The Scottish Legal Aid budget, as I have stated before, is a subject of particular interest to me – as is access to justice more generally. But this year the Scottish Government cut Legal Aid Budget both in real terms and cash terms! Given the strain this will put the system under already, I am not convinced that it is a good use of these public funds to commit – with no clear legal basis for doing so – an undetermined amount of money on a challenge the nature of which is not yet clear, to a decision of the public Crown Office when nothing appears to have changed since that decision was taken.
Nothing, that is, except public opinion.