Most of the people involved with SKAT had no experience of the Legal system prior to registering their protest against the iniquitous toll on the Skye Bridge. We had a naive belief in the essential fairness and justice of our legal system, sure there was the odd miscarriage of justice, but by and large the system got it right. To say that we have had a rude awakening would be an understatement of the first order. It is hard to know where to begin, there has been so much wrong with the way the system has handled prosecution, the easiest is to list some of the things protesters have encountered, bear in mind that the charge is non payment of £4.30 .
All of us were refused legal aid "because it would not be in the interests of justice", this left at the mercy of the worst excesses of the court. We were made to defend ourselves in the face of badly drafted complex legislation.
We have had to wait close to two years for a trial.
We have been required to travel 200 miles to each appearance, in the case of the first wave most had seven court appearances before their actual trial.
The administration of the court is a mess - for example one person pled not guilty by letter and was fined £30.00, when he asked when his trial had been the court admitted its mistake but said it could do nothing to put it right. The gentleman was advised that he would have to apply to the High Court to get his conviction set aside.
Warrants are issued by the Sheriff for non attendance when the notice to appear in court has not been served. They have been issued on people who have indicated to the court that they cannot attend because for example they are being treated for cancer. One Sheriff went so far as to call a busy specialist away from his duties to confirm what a Doctor had already put in writing to the court.
After two nearly two years it would not be surprising if witness memory was shaky, this does not concern some of the Sheriffs who seem to have forgotten that we are innocent until proven guilty. We have had cases where the witness could not remember the colour or make of car, could not remember the direction it was travelling in but was accepted as credible by the court. We have had a wife tried for charges that occurred on days when in fact it was her husband who was on the bridge. When she protested that the dates were wrong she was told it did not matter within 3 days when the offence was committed.
People have been forced to change their plea to guilty because they could no longer afford the time and expense of travel to Dingwall.
Defendants have been bullied and intimidated by the court, they have had a plea entered on their behalf by the Sheriff despite indicating that they wished to enter a plea to the competency.
The Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act has been misused by the Crown by issuing notes of uncontroversial evidence to party litigants which if not responded to in 7 days mean that they would have no possible defence.
The court will accept no "reasonable excuse" other than physical and mental handicap, this clearly was not the intention of the legislators, if a person was handicapped to the degree required by the court, they would not be driving.
In general a very lax standard of evidence is being accepted by the court and any objections overcome by the bullying bluster of the Sheriff.
We are being convicted of failure to pay the toll when the charge is Refusal to pay.
The standards of the impartiality we face, falls far below the ideal, it is clear that the Sheriff has decided before the evidence is heard. It must be said that there have been two notable exceptions to this, but they were not allowed to deal with us for long.
People have travelled 200 miles only to be told that there trial cannot be held because no Sheriff is available, surprisingly the prosecution witnesses were informed of this a week before.
These are only a few examples of the farce that Dingwall Court has become, it would be funny if it were not so dangerous, the system is bringing itself into disrepute. This protest involves a cross section of the community, people who would in other circumstances be expected to be the main support for the legal system. Will any member of the community who is in contact with a defendant in Dingwall ever have to serve on a jury ? - of course they will. Will any of us ever again accept without question the word of our police? - I doubt it - we have seen the way they can "be economical with the actuality". Sooner or later the law will want our community to support it, the longer the farce in Dingwall goes on, the less likely that support is.
What can we do ? - there are legal remedies but these are not accessible to people defending themselves - for example:-
Where the law has been applied incorrectly you can apply for a Bill of Suspension, this requires you to put a legal case to the High Court and is beyond most individuals.
Where the process is oppressive you could apply to "the Nobile Officium" of the High Court again complex, it requires the signature of a QC (beyond the purse of most) and if you lose - you are liable for the costs of the court and Crown.
Appeal against conviction - again complex and expensive and it requires the Sheriff to write a stated case - something that recently they have not been doing.
The simplest method is to say to the court get on with it, but do not expect me to co-operate in what is a political show trial. The law should be the servant of the people not the other way round, if we allow ourselves to be bulldozed without protest - we deserve everything we get. This will not come easily to us as essentially law abiding citizens, however like the Bridge there comes a point when you must make a stand. However unlike the courts we must not bully people, if protestors for their own good reasons wish to attend court we should support them all the way.
Copyright © Ray Shields, 1997.
Most recent revision, 10 June 1997.