By Jeanette Findlay

In Scotland football grounds are no longer solely arenas where the battle is for sporting honours. Instead they have become the place where our status as a modern liberal democracy is being tested. Too many young citizens are caught in the "extremely long reach" of the Offensive Behaviour Act.

An offence with an "extremely long reach" is what Parliament created with this act, in the words of Appeal Court judges Paton, Brodie and Philip. It reaches into pubs, clubs, streets and supporters’ buses as well as football grounds and the political views of those inside. An extremely long reach is matched by an extremely low evidentiary bar.

If a police officer thinks someone might have been offensive and will testify, truthfully or otherwise, that someone might be incited to public disorder, that is enough for a conviction. That someone is not the familiar reasonable person but, in the words of the aforementioned Lords, "a person likely to be incited to public disorder" who is of "a more volatile temperament". Moreover, that combustible chap doesn’t even have to know he has been offended for a crime to be proven.

Proponents of the act claim it is intended to wipe out the scourge of bigotry, which is, on any view, a laudable aim. Yet the Government’s statistics show that, before the act, only a tiny proportion of "religiously aggravated" offending took place in football grounds, begging the question as to why it directed its attention at us.

If the act was used to target bigotry it would simply replicate existing legislation but be no more harmful but it is not. On the instructions of the Football fiscals (yes, Scotland has special fiscals, not for drugs, rape or other violent crimes, but for football), this act is used on fans of all clubs for the most breathtakingly minor "offences".

It has been used to arrest young Hamilton fans for using the F-word when singing about their rivals. It has been used to arrest other young fans who, rightly fed up with being constantly filmed, invited the police officers present to give themselves a colonoscopy with their own cameras. It is the pretext upon which we see the ultimate irony of protests against the act, and the heavy-handed policing which it engenders, being policed in a heavy-handed way.

This act is not used to control hardened, thuggish, bigots. It is used to intimidate and criminalise young, possibly boisterous, often politicised, working-class boys. These young men are overwhelmingly in full-time education or work and some lose their jobs after being charged. Most are, according to experienced solicitors, of unblemished character.

To be charged under this act means some or all of the following: up to four nights in police cells or being chapped up in what the police don’t like being called "dawn raids" but are raids ... at dawn; three or more visits to court (often in other parts of the country); disruption to studies or work; and bail conditions that keep you away from your chosen pastime for months, sometimes more than a year. It is no wonder many young people plead guilty immediately to avoid the disruption.

Having said that, those who go to trial stand a very good chance of being acquitted, because the true conviction rate is low; lower even than the notoriously low rate for rape.

I am not gilding the lily. My problem was not in finding examples to shock readers into rising up against this act but to select judiciously from among the many outrages and abuses that have been heaped on our young football supporting fellow citizens.

Fortunately, the unhappy coincidence of self-interest and self-promotion that brought the act into being began to dissolve when the door hit the backsides of Alex Salmond and Sir Stephen House. I do not believe it is beyond the wit of the present administration (or the next) to find a way to repeal it and I urge it to do so promptly before any more young lives are ruined.