The Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee has heard evidence on proposed legislation that allows courts to impose tougher sentences for offences aggravated by the victim’s disability, gender identity or sexual orientation.

The Sentencing of Offences Aggravated by Prejudice (Scotland) Bill was proposed by Patrick Harvie, a Scottish Green MSP.

It would require the aggravation of an offence by prejudice on grounds of disability, sexual orientation or transgender identity to be taken into account in sentencing.

The Law Society of Scotland expressed concern about the proposal.

“The common law system at present provides flexibility to prosecute a wide variety of criminal conduct and also allows for aggravating circumstances to be taken into account, both in determining the forum for prosecution and the level of sentencing on conviction,” it said in a submission to the committee.

“The creation of a new statutory aggravation of a crime or offence may detract from this flexibility and impose evidential burdens upon the Crown which would not apply at common law.

“The Law Society has expressed similar concerns in the past when addressing other legislation that would introduce statutory aggravations.”

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland (ACPOS) both gave evidence in support of the bill today.

“The successful introduction and approval of such a bill will increase the public perception and awareness of prejudice/hate crime in addition to the racist and religiously motivated issues which are at the forefront of such crimes,” ACPOS said in a submission to the committee.

“If introduced, the bill will impact on the Scottish Police Service as far as the correct recording, reporting and monitoring mechanisms are concerned; however, this in turn will allow for the consistent and appropriate processes to be identified in conjunction with those processes already in place for race and religiously motivated crimes.”

The EHRC has said it supports the introduction of statutory aggravations to identify and tackle crimes motivated by malice and ill will towards gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or disabled people

At a previous hearing into the bill last week, Stonewall Scotland testified about the underreporting of hate crimes against LGBT people.

Christina Stokes from Stonewall told the committee:

“The underreporting of such crimes is a huge problem. Many gay people think that being subject to such offences is simply part of being gay and is nothing serious, but I think that we all agree that such crimes can be horrific and that they need to be dealt with seriously.

“If the bill sends out a clear legal message—and other messages are sent out thereafter in judgments and so on—that such crimes will be taken seriously, people will realise that they will be taken seriously and will be encouraged to come forward.

“They will realise that the substantial stress and hassle of reporting a crime, which obviously prolong the agony to a certain extent, are worth it.”

A 2004 working group, which included police, the Crown Office and gay and disabled groups, recommended the legislation.

But before the 2007 election, the momentum was lost.

After he was re-elected for the Glasgow region, Mr Harvie introduced his own bill. He told PinkNews.co.uk last year that he is confident it will pass.