Concern for civil and political rights in Scotland

The Scottish Human Rights Commission has told the United Nations (UN) it is concerned about the progress of civil and political rights in Scotland, highlighting issues with access to justice for human rights violations; and conditions in places of detention.

Our evidence to the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva is part of its four-year, review cycle of the UK’s human rights record on civil and political rights.

In it, we highlight systemic failure to implement long outstanding recommendations on deaths in custody; the use of remand; and mental health support in Scottish prisons and other places of detention.   

On access to justice, the Commission notes structural problems with the criminal justice system. In particular, the availability of legal aid; practical challenges being experienced in the courts system; and time limits for judicial review, which make it difficult for people to challenge potential human rights violations.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

The Commission is giving evidence as the UN Human Rights Committee assesses the UK's progress in fulfilling the rights contained in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

The UK ratified ICCPR in 1976. It commits states to protect the fundamental civil and political rights of all individuals, including the right to life; liberty; fair trial; freedom of thought, religion and expression; and freedom from torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Jan Savage, Executive Director of the Scottish Human Rights Commission, said:

“It is clear that whilst good work is ongoing in Scotland to develop a stronger legal framework around economic, social and cultural rights via the proposed Human Rights Bill, progress on civil and political rights must not be forgotten. 

“Indeed, our findings highlight some significant areas of concern, and systemic lack of progress on known challenges.

“The Scottish Government urgently needs to take action to implement its own long outstanding recommendations to improve conditions across the prison estate; and take all measures necessary to ensure it meets international human rights standards, including protecting the right to life, and remedy when things go wrong.  

“More generally, many issues are undermining individual rights to access justice across court and non-court routes. These include challenges in the legal aid system, and the functioning of the Fatal Accident Inquiry system. 

“We also report concerns in respect of the civil and political rights of particular groups of people, including disabled people, people from within the Gypsy/Traveller community and migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.

The Commission will continue to place a priority focus on these concerns in our own ongoing work to independently monitor state compliance with civil and political rights in Scotland.”

The Commission's full, written submission to the UN Human Rights Committee notes a wide range of concerns for the protection of civil and political rights in Scotland.  More details are included below. 

Notes to editors:

(1) The Scottish Human Rights Commission is an independent public body with a mandate to promote and protect human rights in Scotland. The Commission is also Scotland’s National Human Rights Institution, accredited as an A-status organisation within the international human rights system, which means it can monitor and report on the state of human rights in Scotland to the United Nations and Council of Europe.

(2) Our findings on places of detention and access to justice in our ICCPR report include:

On places of detention

The Commission reports that:

  • The Scottish prison estate includes outdated facilities which are not fit for purpose. More than half of prisons in Scotland currently operate at more than 100 per cent capacity.
  • More than 20 per cent of people in the Scottish prison estate are held on remand, with proportions significantly higher in the female population and young offenders institutions.
  • The lack of access to appropriate mental health support in prison settings and practices such as the use of segregation continue to be of huge concern, after many years of being raised by a number of bodies in Scotland and internationally.
  • An Independent Review of the Response to Deaths in Prison Custody was published in 2021, co-chaired by the Commission and accepted in full by the Scottish Government; yet just five of the Review’s 27 recommendations and advisory points had been completed as of January 2024.
  • The Commission recommends that the Scottish Government and other agencies involved take all measures necessary to ensure the prison estate conforms to international standards and is fit for purpose.

On access to justice 

  • The Scottish Government has embarked on a programme of reforms to both criminal and civil procedure, aimed at improving access to justice. However key elements of the system which restrict the availability of justice remain to be adequately addressed.
  • We highlight the legal aid budget and the structure as longstanding concerns. Supply is well below demand, and in some areas of Scotland there is no civil legal aid, including for child contact, protection orders or migration cases.
  • The three-month time limit for judicial review also makes it extremely difficult for individuals to challenge potential human rights violations.
  • The Commission recommends the Scottish Government ensure that access to effective and appropriate remedies for human rights violations can be improved in Scotland.

The report notes a wide range of additional findings on civil and political rights, including the following: 

On more accountability for human rights

The Scottish Government has committed to bring a range of international human rights treaties into Scots law in a new Human Rights Bill. This legislation should strengthen accountability for human rights, especially given proposed new duties for public bodies. The Commission notes that these increased routes to remedy must apply to all human rights treaties, and not just those incorporated via that Bill.

On the rights of Gypsy/Travellers

The Commission recommends the Scottish Government take steps to support Gypsy/Traveller communities in Scotland to realise their rights in relation to cultural heritage and accommodation; and to build trust with communities, including working with them to consider a reconciliation process for past harms.

On the liberty of people with learning disabilities

The Commission reports gaps in service provision and suitable accommodation, as well as concerns about legislative frameworks which can be used to deprive liberty; and that the Scottish Government urgently address the commitments of the Coming Home implementation plan.

Read the full report on the Scottish Human Rights Commission website.