Sat 5 December 2020

With the former SNP MP sentenced to 18 months in prison for embezzlement, court reporter James Doleman ponders the utility of incarceration for non-violent crimes – and without any evidence being heard.

Last Thursday, former MP Natalie McGarry was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

Her crime? Embezzling more than £20,000 from various Scottish Independence campaigns, and from her former party, the SNP.

The Sheriff – the Scottish equivalent of a district judge – was scathing in his judgment.

“Your fraud and deceit is of the most serious type,” he told the 37-year-old. “You were in positions of trust, and you abused those positions.”

“You have, through your conduct, fallen very far short of the standards that the general public should be able to expect from, not only those whom they entrust with their hard earned money to use for specific purposes, [but] in your case, their elected representative,” he added.

Wouldn’t 300 hours of unpaid work at a food bank have been more appropriate?

The sentence made front page news in Scotland and sparked a long needed debate on the usefulness of imprisoning non-violent offenders, which I’ll come on to.

However, there is one point I think everyone has missed: how Natalie McGarry was found guilty in the first place.

In Scottish – and English – law, we have the presumption of innocence. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty.

When someone denies a crime they are accused of, they are entitled to their day in court, to challenge the evidence against them. It is then up to a jury, or a judge, to decide if the case is proved beyond any doubt, before any conviction can be made.

None of that happened in this case.

The day before her trial was due to start, McGarry, who was by then unrepresented by counsel, unexpectedly changed her plea from not guilty to guilty.

A week later, having taken legal advice, she tried to change it back again, with her new lawyer arguing that she had made that plea under duress, had been suffering from postnatal depression, and had felt utterly overwhelmed by the prospect of a six-week trial with no legal support.

The Sheriff, Mr Crozier, refused this motion simply saying that “it does not make the legal test”. The Scottish legal system, it appears, runs on the basis of ‘no backsies’.

I don’t know if McGarry is guilty or innocent. I’ve heard no evidence either-way. But – aside from the legal teams on both sides – neither has anyone else.

In the immediate aftermath of the sentencing, I tweeted that I thought 18 months was “beyond harsh”. Many people disagreed, pointing out that some of the money she was found guilty of stealing was meant to go to a food bank for the benefit of the most needy people in society. There is a lot of force in that argument.

Yet, in my view, imprisoning people should be a last, last resort – only if they represent a real danger to the public; if their crime is so heinous as to require it; or if, after repeat offences, nothing else has worked. None of these, in my view apply here.

The sentence made front page news in Scotland and sparked a long needed debate on the usefulness of imprisoning non-violent offenders.

Wouldn’t 300 hours of unpaid work at a food bank have been more appropriate?

Yet “we are where we are” as the Sheriff said when McGarry’s lawyer tried to re-open the issue of her guilt or innocence at the final hearing. And, as the judge said the words “18 months”, a female dock officer immediately walked over to the accused and handcuffed her.

It’s a controversial case, one that will surely end up in the appeal court.

However, as we left court, there was only one question going through my head: what was the point of jailing Natalie McGarry?

Come and Meet James at this Summer’s Byline Festival

This article was amended, following publication, on 11 June, 2019. The comparison of a sheriff to a magistrate was changed to a district judge, and the 500 hours of community service suggested to 300.

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