Of all the acts the SNP majority government passed in the last parliament, the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act stands out as one of the worst.
It became law in 2012, in spite of serious concerns on its provisions expressed by many organisations including the Law Society of Scotland and the Human Rights Commission. No opposition party supported the act.
The fundamental problem, pointed out well in advance of the act becoming law, was its lack of clarity. A law based around the concept of offence to a notional reasonable person rather than an actual individual who is affected by the crime was bound to be problematic. It places both the police and the courts in the unenviable position of identifying and defining this mythical creature. The pre-existing law on breach of the peace is, in comparison, relatively clear.
Predictably, there have been conflicting decisions by respected judges in similar cases with the act itself reportedly having been referred to as ‘mince’ by one judge. Unsurprisingly, there continues to be sharp criticism from those directly involved in cases brought under the act. Very recently, it was branded “capricious, unfair, unnecessary and unworkable” by the recent former chair of the Scottish Criminal Bar Association.
Only four years after its inception, it looks as if this badly formulated law may be headed for the history books. MSPs are beginning to consider a Bill that calls for its repeal. As part of that process a consultation is being launched to ask football clubs, supporters and experts what they think about the act.
If only the SNP had listened to the arguments in 2011. Good law that works must take into account a range of different views and particularly those from people actually affected by and involved in carrying out the legislation.
Not only football fans find it staggering that those filling Tynecastle every second week (may) be treated differently to those who attend Murrayfield, almost a stone’s throw away, just because they have chosen to follow a different sport. No wonder football supporters have held up a banner at a match which read: SNP – soft on crime, hard on fans.
There is a real issue which requires to be dealt with – sectarianism and its ugly consequences. But the way to deal with this is through education and removing the circumstances which lie at the root of the problem. A law which fails in so many ways is not the answer.
The Scottish Conservatives will continue to make the case for abolishing this law, which has rightly been labelled ridiculous.
Gordon Lindhurst is Scottish Conservative Lothians MSP and legal affairs spokesman