Justice minister MacAskill promises review of corroboration plans

From Democracy Live: Kenny MacAskill tells MSPs supporting evidence will still be required in criminal cases

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The abolition of corroboration in criminal cases is being delayed to review the impact the reform would have on Scots law.

Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill said if the bill passes he would ensure further consideration be given to other safeguards against wrongful conviction before abolition takes effect.

He added he did not want prosecutions based solely on "one person's word".

Some MSPs are concerned that the change would lead to miscarriages of justice.

Analysis

"Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill is not giving any ground on his main objective - to abolish the general requirement for corroboration in criminal cases.

"But his offer to review what alternative safeguards might be needed to prevent an increased risk of wrongful convictions is still a significant concession.

"It is a recognition that the safeguards already proposed, such as increasing jury majorities, have not done enough to assuage criticism from within the legal profession.

"All but one of Scotland's serving high court judges are against abolition. As are the Law Society of Scotland and the Faculty of Advocates.

"Police Scotland, the Crown Office and victim's groups support the change because they believe it will allow more sexual and domestic abuse cases to be heard in court.

"The BBC understands that a prominent individual will be appointed to carry out the review, with access to a range of expert opinion.

"It's thought the work could be completed by the end of the year.

"It would then be for parliament to consider and approve the design of the new system.

"Only then, would the legislation to abolish corroboration (due to be voted on before the summer 2014 recess) take effect.

"Until then it would be in what one MSP said was a state of "suspended animation".

"This additional review will delay abolition by at least six months (from spring to autumn 2015) and allow more time to consider the consequences."

Mr MacAskill made the offer during an evidence session to the Scottish Parliament's justice committee where he was questioned as part of an inquiry into the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill.

The bill would abolish the requirement, unique to Scots Law, that there must be two separate sources of evidence before a case can proceed to trial.

The justice secretary said he was "open to any additional safeguards" including any the committee suggested as part of its scrutiny of the bill.

He attempted to reassure MSPs that "no case will be brought without additional supporting evidence".

The committee's convener, the SNP's Christine Grahame, pressed him on what such supporting evidence would be required if corroboration goes.

Mr MacAskill said that it was for courts to decide but gave the example of CCTV.

Later, he argued that corroboration was developed "in a world when we didn't have CCTV, we didn't have forensic science" and now "the world has changed".

Labour MSP and deputy convener Elaine Murray suggested that corroboration could be supporting evidence, not necessarily two witnesses to every alleged offence.

But Mr MacAskill responded that disagreement over what corroboration was, including within the legal profession, showed "there is something fundamentally wrong".

Lib Dem Alison McInnes likened abolition to other "controversial" SNP measures such as measures against "offensive behaviour at football matches" and creating a single Scottish police force, and accused the justice secretary of being "deaf" to criticism.

The minister said his concern was for victims.

Abolition is opposed by many current and former members of the judiciary in Scotland but is supported by organisations including Rape Crisis Scotland and Victim Support Scotland.

The Scottish government believes more rape, sexual offence and domestic abuse cases would be heard in court if the current need for two different and independent sources of evidence was removed, as many incidents of those offences occur in private.

Ian Cruickshank, convener of the Law Society of Scotland's criminal law committee, said: "Whilst the cabinet secretary has announced what is a welcome concession our view remains that corroboration, given its centrality in criminal proceedings, should be looked at comprehensively before legislation is passed that abolishes it.

"We will of course play the fullest part that we can in any review, whether of corroboration itself or of additional safeguards if corroboration is abolished."

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