Alex Massie

Astonishing Development: Common Sense and Decency Win the Day

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More legal matters: remember the case of Gail Cochrane? She's the 53-year old Dundonian who was jailed for five years for the crime of possessing her father's service revolver. The sentence, its defenders claimed, was justified since her gun was, for admittedly curious reasons, stashed beneath her bed and not in a box in the attic or basement. Nevertheless, the ghastliness of mandatory sentencing was again on display.

Happily, for once, sanity has won the day. Lallands Peat Worrier brings the news that Mrs Cochrane has won her appeal at the High Court of Justiciary. The full judgement may be read here. Praise be to Lords Reed and Marnoch for their sense, indeed their decency and shame upon Lord Carloway for endorsing the original verdict. Lord Reed writes:

[...] an appellate court will not readily interfere with the decision of the sentencing judge as to whether exceptional circumstances exist unless the judge is clearly wrong. I have however come to the conclusion that it is appropriate to interfere with the decision of the sentencing judge in this case."

[...] "When account is taken also of the present appellant's personal circumstances, it appears to me that the imposition of a sentence of five years' imprisonment would indeed be arbitrary and disproportionate. It would not be rationally related to Parliament's intention in stipulating that a sentence of at least five years' imprisonment should normally be imposed, since the present case falls outside the range of cases which Parliament can be taken to have had in mind as the norm; and it would result in punishment which was out of proportion to the seriousness of the appellant's offence and her personal circumstances, relative to the punishment imposed in other cases. "

It's too much to hope that, as asbolondoner commented on this post, the judiciary bears Lord Denning's advice in mind that, "The way to change bad law is not to ignore it, but to enforce it". Nevertheless, mandatory minimum sentences are a) an easy way for politicians to strut their "toughness" and b) the inevitable precursor to gross and frequent injustice. A better polity would abandon them entirely.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articleSocietylawscotland