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Background reports being misconstrued, study finds

21 July 2008

New research claims that background reports on offenders are being misunderstood, according to an article in today's Herald.

A study by Strathclyde Law School's Centre for Sentencing Research has concluded that pre-sentence social enquiry reports, which provide sheriffs and judges with information about the character and background of convicted offenders, are read and interpreted in different ways than intended by the writers of the reports.

The study, which focused on summary cases, found that evaluations of an offender's character could not be written explicitly enough for fear of encroaching on the function of the courts, so sheriffs had to read between the lines. In addition, sheriffs and defence solicitors tended to speed read reports, concentrating on the end, with the result that key messages were often missed or misconstrued.

Cyrus Tata of Strathclyde University, co-author of the report, said that the intention that social enquiry reports would help sentencers choose non-custodial sentences was sometimes undermined due to the way reports were interpreted.