22nd March 2021

By Dr Jamie Buchan and Dr Scott Grant

Situating Scotland’s approach to community justice alongside our European neighbours is something that deserves more press in political and academic circles. In 2018 we accepted the offer to update a comprehensive chapter on Scottish ‘probation’ for the Confederation of European Probation (CEP) – previously completed in 2008. In doing so – and by doing so in the level of detail and analysis required to cover vast areas of community justice – we found ourselves struck by just how closely Scotland aligns with Europe in our policy, legislation and practice. Yet, as we discovered through our research, this ‘Europeanness’ is not marked anywhere in our own official policy documents, nor has it been mentioned anywhere in discussions or debates on criminal justice in the Scottish parliament (according to the Minutes of Chamber Proceedings). This puzzled us.

All the more so when CEP asked us, when writing the chapter, to examine how closely the Scottish system conforms to European Probation Rules (EPRs). In 2010, the Council of Europe instituted a set of rules and norms for the development and operation of probation/community justice systems across member states. These are not legally binding; member states still have control over their penal policies, but are expected to respect core directives and uphold their principles in how they organise and run their criminal justice systems. Agreements like the EPRs are grounded in the European Convention on Human Rights and are intended to promote due process and the human rights of victims as well as offenders; they also allow for ‘mutual recognition’ of sentences (so that, for instance, a German tourist who commits a crime in France can be sentenced under French law but serve their sentence back in Germany). Agreements like the EPRs are part of a growing effort to standardise and harmonise criminal justice across the EU and make a rights-respecting, desistance- and welfare-oriented criminal justice part of the European ‘project’.

First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon MSP

Before Covid-19 took over political agendas worldwide, a great deal of political discussion in Scotland was focused on our future relationship with the European Union. Speaking in Brussels on February 10th, 2020 (ten days after the UK officially left the European Union), the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, declared “We are keen to outline a clear route to re-accession; to show that we understand what EU membership requires; and to demonstrate that we have much to offer”. Her speech celebrated the broad alignment of standards, values and principles shared between the EU and Scotland, focusing much on the Scottish Government’s future intention to apply for EU membership as an independent country and emphasising Scotland’s natural ‘fit’ in terms of common economic objectives, maintaining EU standards, and keeping pace with developing EU legislation.

That ‘fit’ is evident in probation/community justice, where our chapter found close conformity with most of the key EPRs. However, and strangely, this is not noted (or indeed celebrated) anywhere in policy and practice documents on Scottish community justice – and when we contacted the Scottish Government to ask about conformity with EPRs, we received no information. Reflecting on this and on the First Minister’s speech, we felt – as academics immersed in comparative research at that point – just a wee bit disappointed not to see more said (or anything said!) about the close links here.

Policy decisions about punishment can reflect beliefs and aspirations about national identity and the place of a country or jurisdiction in the world. The First Minister ended her Brussels speech by promising that “[a]s an independent nation, we will embrace international co-operation.” Whatever Scotland’s future constitutional status might be, our intentions with Europe will likely involve engagement with non-binding European agreements around a range of economic and social matters, including – we hope – wider recognition of Scottish alignment with European Probation Rules.

Council of Europe, Strasbourg

Interestingly, before joining the EU in 2013, Croatia had to demonstrate that its newly-established probation service complied with the EPRs (see Šimpraga et al., 2014). Scotland will need to do the same during any future attempt to re-join the European Union. For recent EU members, the EPRs have been one way to get closer to Europe through demonstrating broader compliance with European norms. Scotland’s current policy, legislation and practice is, in our view at least, ready to go (or dare we say, ‘oven ready’). Although, we might urge future negotiators to have a wee look at our chapter first – I think we’ve done most of the hard work for them!

Dr Jamie Buchan, is a Lecturer based at Edinburgh Napier University. His research interests include criminal justice in Scotland (particularly justice policy), community penalties (probation/criminal justice social work) and the development of local-oriented ‘partnership’ approaches in criminal justice, including the role played by local governments.

Dr Scott Grant is a full-time lecturer at the University of Dundee and member of the Institute for Social Sciences Research. His research interests include the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu; the lived experience of penal agents in practice; the training and development of penal agents; the intersection of sociology and criminology; and the implications of penal policy on practice.


Further reading [all free or open access]

Canton, R. (2020). The European Probation Rules: A Celebration and a Reflection. Talking about punishment blog. Available at: https://rcanto00.our.dmu.ac.uk/2020/11/11/250/

Centre for European Probation (2020). Probation in Europe. Online chapters all available at: https://www.cep-probation.org/knowledgebases/probation-in-europe-updates/

Council of Europe (2010). The European Probation Rules (recommendation CM/Rec(2010)1). https://search.coe.int/cm/Pages/result_details.aspx?ObjectID=09000016805cfbc7

Grant, S., Buchan, J. and O’Donnell (2020). Scotland. In: Probation in Europe (online chapter, updated version). Utrecht: Confederation of European Probation. Available at:https://www.cep-probation.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Scotland-chapter-final-version.pdf

Šimpraga, D., Maloić, S. and Ricijaš, N. (2014). Croatia. In: Probation in Europe (online chapter, updated version). Utrecht: Confederation of European Probation. Available at: https://www.cep-probation.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Probation-in-Europe-Final-chapter-Croatia.pdf


Images from Canva, SWM and the Council of Europe.
Main photo from Community Justice Scotland, Flickr