Daily Record 22 March 2014
Bill Walker’s early release is an indictment on the handling of domestic abuse by our justice system. The former MSP was convicted in September 2013 of 22 violent assaults against three former wives and a step-daughter. The conviction and imprisonment of such a high profile figure for serious domestic abuse offences does show how far Scotland’s criminal justice system has come in dealing with domestic abuse. But unfortunately the system can still stymy progress, as his early release has shown.
Despite the seriousness of the charges, the Sheriff’s hands were tied and the maximum sentence Sheriff Mackie could impose on Walker was a pitiful twelve months. Walker has walked out of prison after only six months under the early release scheme which is due to be axed by the Scottish parliament and not before time. First Minister has claimed that the scheme introduced by the Westminster government in 1993, “does not command public confidence” and he is right.
‘Early release scheme does not command public confidence’
Scotland’s First Minister
Had they not been running concurrently, Walker’s sentences for each of his 22 assault convictions would have kept him in prison for a couple more years – a punishment far more fitting to the crime. Light sentences are not the only concern in the way we tackle domestic violence. The case against Walker succeeded because, although most of the assaults happened in private, the evidence from each of his former wives and step-daughter corroborated the other. Most victims suffer in private, sometimes for years but some do not have another person to corroborate the crime and that’s why the abolition of corroboration is an essential and long overdue reform.
Scottish police now take domestic abuse much more seriously and it is no longer dismissed as ‘just a domestic’. Police Scotland are called to a domestic abuse incident every nine minutes and 11 women were murdered by a partner or ex-partner in Scotland last year. This is not fisticuffs but dangerous criminal behaviour involving threats and abuse, stalking, harassment, attempted murder, serious assault and rape. Some men, like Walker, have committed offences against a number of ex-partners going back years.
Domestic abuse accounts for 15 per cent of all violent crime in Scotland
However, whilst on average police report over three quarters of domestic abuse incidents to the Procurator Fiscal, more than half go no further due to the lack of corroboration. Although the introduction of fast track domestic abuse courts like Glasgow’s has been a great success, violent abusers like Walker are tried mainly in summary proceedings carrying a maximum available sentence of 12 months.
Domestic abuse takes up 20 per cent of Police Scotland’s time
Custody was the only option available to Sheriff Mackie because Walker showed no signs of remorse and denied all charges. It is just a pity that she did not have the power to give Walker a longer prison term. Walker was definitely unsuitable for the Caledonian Programme, Scottish Government’s flag ship mandatory programme for convicted domestic abuse offenders.
The programme requires men to take responsibility for their crimes and address their criminal behaviour and Walker never has. Sheriff Mackie had no confidence that Walker would succeed on a programme designed to change the attitudes of men who condone domestic abuse.
At no point did Walker show the slightest remorse for his crimes against the women and in fact he has displayed only contempt for his victims.
Preventing domestic abusers from re-offending and making sure they pose no further threat to their victims must be a key priority for the criminal justice system. Walker’s high profile will at least ensure that his victims know exactly when he is released and in that respect they are luckier than most.
The Scottish Prison Service’s Victim Notification Scheme ensures that victims of violent crimes are told when their attacker is being released but the system only kicks in when the perpetrator has been sentenced to four years or more and the victims requests it. With sentences for most domestic abuse offences limited to 12 months, many victims have no idea when their attacker has been freed, despite the threat that many still pose.
There are many perpetrators of domestic abuse who, like Walker, do not believe they did anything wrong. Changing the way domestic abuse is handled and the attitudes of abusers is a long term project for Scotland. According to international observers Scotland has the most progressive approach to domestic abuse in the UK but as the Walker case demonstrates, we have a long way to go.
Has prison changed Bill Walker’s attitude to his crimes? Probably not.
Has Bill Walker changed ours? It has increased awareness of how domestic abuse makes no distinction in terms of class, status and profile. It has also shone a light on the need for tougher sentencing.
Scottish Prison Service’s Victim Notification Scheme: