Scotland politics

Corroboration move endorsed by MSPs

Controversial plans to get rid of the need for evidence in Scottish criminal trials to come from two sources have been endorsed by MSPs.

Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill said the "outdated rule" of corroboration meant many victims were denied justice.

The reform has been backed by police and prosecutors, but there is fierce opposition from the legal profession.

The measure was part of the Criminal Justice Bill, approved in principle by 64 votes to five, with 57 abstentions.

The legislation, which brings in a series of reforms to the justice system, still faces two further stages of parliamentary scrutiny before becoming law.

The Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats and Greens called on the Scottish government to ditch the proposals while a full review of their impact was carried out.

Supporters of the move to end the requirement for corroboration were required to vote, including Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop, who pulled out of an official visit to Poland.

Opening the debate, the justice secretary said: "Too many compelling cases, ones often committed in private, often cannot make it to our courts because of this outdated rule."

He continued: "We cannot have a whole category of victims who are continually denied access to justice."

Mr MacAskill said a group chaired by former High Court judge Lord Bonomy would consider what safeguards would be needed if the change was passed.

He told MSPs the change would not be implemented until parliament had considered the review's recommendations.

He argued: "I have listened to and acted on the concerns raised. I now ask parliament to listen to the voice of those representing some of the most vulnerable people in our society and to support the general principles of this bill in its entirety."

But Labour justice spokesman Graeme Pearson, a former senior police officer, said asking parliament to pass the proposals before the review was to "ask members to write a blank cheque with the promise they will receive the goods later".

He added: "I don't do that at home and I wouldn't do that on behalf of victims.

"In light of the one-year delay he anticipates before any empowerment for the abolition of corroboration, it would be prudent for the cabinet secretary to remove this section of the bill - allowing him to bring back a comprehensive and considered proposal at the conclusion of Lord Bonomy's work, and allowing the remaining significant issues in this bill to go forward."

Scottish Conservative MSP Margaret Mitchell, who unsuccessfully put forward an amendment to remove the abolition of corroboration from the bill, said: "The rule of corroboration is not some legal relic from antiquity."

Reaching agreement

She said the rule had been arrived at through "centuries of legal thought" and urged Mr MacAskill to "listen to the wisdom of the ages".

"Abolishing corroboration would be a grave mistake which will certainly result in miscarriages of justice and will, crucially, jeopardise the right of an accused person to a fair trial.

"It is therefore up to elected MSPs to vote with their conscience to prevent that from happening by grasping the opportunity presented within this debate."

The Liberal Democrats' Alison McInnes also called on the Scottish government to wait until Lord Bonomy's review had concluded, accusing Mr MacAskill of showing a "contempt of parliament" and "relentlessly pursuing only one outcome".

She said: "The reasoned pleas of Scotland's top judges, including the Lord President, legal professionals and human rights organisations have been ignored."

The justice committee convenor, SNP MSP Christine Grahame, said: "While all members have serious concerns about the low prosecution rates, in particular rape and serious sexual offences, we could not reach agreement on whether removing such an integral part of the criminal justice system would improve access to justice."

However, the SNP MSP added that "the abolition of the requirement of mandatory corroboration would apply to all crimes in which it is a requirement" including shoplifting and vandalism.

Last month it emerged that the majority of justice committee members did not support change.

Legal evolution

Green MSP Patrick Harvie asked why the Scottish government had not brought forward its proposals for measures to replace corroboration at the same time as considering its abolition, allowing parliament to debate both together.

"Why can't parliament vote on both matters at the same time?" he asked, adding: "If Scottish law is going to evolve, into what will it evolve?"

The main opposition parties backed the Conservative amendment but it was narrowly defeated by 64 votes to 61, with one abstention.

The Crown Office said that in 2012-13 there were 2,210 domestic abuse cases which could not be prosecuted because of insufficient admissible evidence.

The recommendation to scrap corroboration has been supported by the Scottish government, the Crown Office, Police Scotland and campaigners for victims of domestic violence and rape.

It is opposed by many court judges, who have warned that "the abolition of corroboration may result in miscarriages of justice".

Many criminal lawyers are also against the reform.

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