May 2, 2024
Scotland recently implemented a new hate crime law on April 1, 2024, aimed at combating expressions of hatred directed at various groups based on protected characteristics such as age, disability, faith, sexual orientation, and transgender identity. While this legislation marks a significant step forward in addressing hate crimes beyond racial and ethnic biases, it is already mired in controversy, including questions raised about its effectiveness. Let’s delve into the details.

The Law’s Scope

The Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act is designed to provide stronger protection for victims and communities across Scotland. It introduces new offences targeting threatening or abusive behaviour intended to stir up hatred based on characteristics such as age, disability, religion, sexual orientation, transgender identity, and variations in sex characteristics. These provisions complement existing laws against stirring up racial hatred, which have been in place across the UK since 1986.

These new laws were developed following Lord Bracadale’s Independent Review of Hate Crime Legislation, which emphasised the need for specific offences related to stirring up hatred. The legislation, supported by a majority of MSPs in the Scottish Parliament in 2021, underwent extensive consultation and engagement with communities affected by hate crime.

Minister for Victims and Community Safety Siobhian Brown emphasised the importance of ensuring that nobody in society lives in fear, asserting the commitment to fostering safer communities devoid of hatred and prejudice. The legislation recognises the profound impact of physical, verbal, or online attacks on victims, which can be traumatic and life-altering. This legal framework stands as a crucial component of a broader strategy aimed at addressing such harm.

Furthermore, the legislation includes safeguards for freedom of expression, ensuring that individuals’ rights are upheld. The new offences are set at a higher threshold for criminality compared to the longstanding offence of stirring up racial hatred, striking a balance between protecting against hate speech and preserving the right to express differing viewpoints.


The legislation, enacted after three years of debate, extends beyond racial and ethnic hatred to include other marginalised groups, but notably excludes women, with separate legislation planned. This exclusion has sparked controversy and raised questions about the comprehensiveness and effectiveness of the law in combating all forms of discrimination and prejudice.

Additionally, concerns have been raised about the potential ambiguity in defining hate speech and the implications of extending state intervention into private and social spheres.

Interpreting and Enforcing the Law

The interpretation of the law falls to law enforcement, with the police tasked to assess and potentially prosecute hate crimes, with a maximum sentence of seven years.

The discretion afforded to law enforcement in determining what constitutes hate speech has raised concerns about consistency and fairness in the application of the law. Furthermore, the potential for overreach and chilling effects on free speech remains contentious. 

Challenges and Criticisms

Critics highlight challenges in defining hate speech, potential overreach into private life, and concerns about stifling free speech and debate, echoing anxieties about state censorship.

The complexity of identifying and prosecuting hate crimes, particularly in the context of evolving societal norms and digital communication platforms, poses significant challenges for both law enforcement and legislators.


Boost Your Legal Career

Receive 1-2-1 application support to jumpstart your legal career!


Safeguards and Protections

Supporters argue for safeguards in the law, including provisions for freedom of expression and reasonable behaviour, as well as the consolidation of existing laws and inclusion of protected characteristics.

Supporters of the legislation say that this law will provide much-need protection and legal recourse for victims of hate crimes, fostering a better culture of respect and tolerance.

Police Resourcing and Implementation

Questions arise about police resources and training to handle the anticipated increase in complaints, particularly regarding online speech, with fears of potential self-censorship. In fact, according to Police Scotland, official data for the first week shows that they already received 7,152 reports and only 3.8% of hate crime law complaints were found to be authentic so far.

Adequate resourcing and training are essential to ensure that law enforcement agencies can effectively enforce the hate crime law while respecting individuals’ rights and freedoms. The implementation of the legislation will require collaboration between law enforcement, community organisations, and legal experts to navigate the complexities of identifying and prosecuting hate crimes. 

Reactions and Impact

Concerns voiced by prominent figures such as JK Rowling and Rishi Sunak reflect apprehensions regarding the potential impact of the law on free speech and its handling of gender-related matters. These concerns have sparked significant societal discourse about our core values.

The robust opposition to the hate crime law underscores the importance placed on freedom of speech and the appropriate level of government intervention in regulating speech. While the law aims to protect marginalised groups from discrimination and prejudice, its implementation will undoubtedly shape the fabric of Scottish society.

Why Are Women Not Protected by New Hate Crime Law?

The law notably excludes women, sparking criticism from women’s rights campaigners such as JK Rowling. While biological sex was not initially included, it could have been incorporated into the legislation, as recommended by Lord Bracadale’s independent review of hate crime laws.

However, the Scottish government opted to consider a separate approach to protect women, leaving the possibility of adding sex to the hate crime law open for future consideration.

The decision not to include women in the new law stemmed from concerns about defining the term “woman” amid heated public debate surrounding gender identity and legislation related to gender change. Although the government initially hinted at the potential inclusion of sex, it has since clarified that it does not plan to add sex to the legislation.

Instead, ministers propose introducing a separate bill to address misogyny, which would focus on criminal behaviours motivated purely by misogyny, aiming to provide targeted protection for women and girls.

Baroness Helena Kennedy’s report on misogyny in Scotland supported this approach, advocating for a dedicated law to tackle a spectrum of misogynistic conduct. This proposed Misogyny Act would encompass various offences, including misogynistic conduct aggravating crimes, misogynistic harassment, and threats of rape or sexual assault against women and girls, both online and offline. 


Scotland’s new hate crime law aims to protect marginalised groups but faces significant challenges in enforcement, interpretation, and safeguarding free expression, raising questions about its efficacy and impact. The legislation represents a nuanced attempt to address hate speech and discrimination while upholding fundamental rights and freedoms.

However, navigating the complexities of hate crime legislation requires ongoing dialogue, collaboration, and vigilance to ensure that the law serves its intended purpose without unduly infringing on individual liberties. In balancing protection and expression, Scotland seeks to foster a society that values diversity, inclusivity, and respect for all its members.


Loading More Content