Never one to shy away from a quick legal aid fee, the legal profession has landed the Scottish Executive with a £76million pound plus bill for payments to prisoners over slopping out.
The Herald reports :
LUCY ADAMS, Chief Reporter
Taxpayers are facing a bill running into hundreds of millions of pounds after a landmark ruling by Law Lords yesterday against Scottish ministers.
Their verdict on the impact of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) will sanction compensation claims by thousands of prisoners, estimated to cost at least £76m.
But because the Law Lords, the highest appeal court in the UK, decided that the usual time limit of one year on human rights cases should not apply, experts believe legal actions against a range of other public bodies could follow.
Yesterday's ruling focused on four men kept in segregation in prison, but was seen as an important test case for inmates who have suffered inhumane or degrading conditions since 1999, when the ECHR was introduced under the Scotland Act.
The ECHR has a statutory one-year limit, but there is no time-bar for cases brought under the Scotland Act, and the Law Lords, in a 3-2 ruling, said the latter legislation should prevail. It will put Scotland into what appears to be a unique position in human rights law.
Claims are expected from thousands of prisoners who have been forced to slop-out since 1999 and yesterday's ruling will also extend the length of time they can claim to have suffered. Many cases had been frozen, awaiting yesterday's outcome.
Tony Kelly, solicitor for the four men, said: "I am delighted that the Law Lords, after careful and detailed scrutiny of the petitioners' cases, have decided that they were correct in basing their challenges under the Scotland Act.
"This is a definitive ruling about the correct procedural route to be taken when the Scottish ministers are to be sued. This is not simply a legal nicety.
"The Law Lords have held that Scottish citizens do not need to look beyond the Scotland Act when seeking to ensure that their government acts within its powers and respects (ECHR) rights. This gives litigants in Scotland the full measure of protection in court actions, free from any technical restraints."
The four at the centre of the ruling are Andrew Somerville and Ricardo Blanco, serving life for murder; armed robber Sammy Ralston; and David Henderson, a violent offender. They claimed their human rights were abused when they were forced to live in segregated conditions, without recourse to representation.
The appeal court in Edinburgh ruled last year that the cases were time-barred. The Law Lords have now overturned that decision, meaning their case can go ahead.
The ruling follows the case of Robert Napier, a remand prisoner in Barlinnie, in Glasgow, who claimed he had suffered degrading "treatment" in breach of article 3 of the ECHR, for having to slop-out.
Awarding Napier £2450, Lord Bonomy said it was clear ministers could have fixed the problem of slopping-out earlier, but chose not to do so. The figure was based on two months of slopping-out. The amount claimed by those who have been slopping-out for years will be considerably higher.
Lord Bonomy highlighted the decision by Jim Wallace, the former justice minister, to use £13m to tackle drug trafficking and domestic abuse instead of slopping-out, which effectively ended in England and Wales in 1996.
The Scottish Prison Service (SPS) is now spending £1.5m a week on modernising prisons. Accounts for this year show a contingency sum of £76m, allowing for the possibility of losing the case yesterday.
A spokesman said: "We have received the judgment and are considering the wider implications. We have already made provision within the SPS accounts for claims under ECHR legislation. The Scottish Government has made considerable financial commitments to providing a prison estate fit for purpose for the 21st century. This will eliminate the conditions which have given rise to many of these claims."