Ditch corroboration plans, say Justice Committee MSPs

Kenny MacAskill Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill wants the current corroboration law abolished

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MSPs have suggested ditching controversial plans to abolish the requirement for corroboration from criminal justice legislation.

It emerged that the majority of Justice Committee members do not support change.

The government said an inquiry led by former high court judge Lord Bonomy would look at safeguards needed if corroboration was abolished.

Opposition leaders called on ministers to wait until after the inquiry.

The reform is included in the Scottish government's Criminal Justice Bill.

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What we as members are being asked to do is to vote through a bill which we know to be deeply flawed on the grounds that Kenny MacAskill says he'll sort it later.”

End Quote Ruth Davidson Scottish Conservative leader

Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill said he remained "committed to this essential and long-overdue reform as the corroboration rule can prevent strong cases which could be prosecuted in other jurisdictions from being taken forward".

He added: "Scotland is the only country in the world which has been identified as having the requirement and this is acting as a barrier to justice and denying too many victims their opportunity to have their day in court."

But MSPs on the Justice Committee said they were "concerned that the case for abolition has paid insufficient regard to the importance of this requirement within the Scottish criminal justice system".

Call for delay

Opposition party leaders pressed First Minister Alex Salmond during his weekly question time to delay abolition until Lord Bonomy's inquiry had concluded.

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson said: "What we as members are being asked to do is to vote through a bill which we know to be deeply flawed on the grounds that Kenny MacAskill says he'll sort it later.

"There is an obvious solution here. Leave the scrapping of corroboration out of the bill.

"Ask Lord Bonomy to report on the whole issue and then let us look at it again."

Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie argued: "Appointing Lord Bonomy doesn't restore justice, it simply papers over the cracks with a veneer of respectability."

He urged the first minister to overrule his justice secretary "before he does serious damage".

But Mr Salmond responded: "It's not a quick fix, it's a distinguished judge who's looking to make absolutely certain that as this change is made, appropriate safeguards are there to prevent miscarriages of justice."

'Archaic rule'

The committee has been scrutinising the Scottish government's Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill, which includes plans to abolish the centuries-old requirement for corroboration - which means that currently evidence against an accused person must come from more than one source.

One of Scotland's top judges, Lord Carloway, called for the change in a review of the criminal justice system, insisting corroboration was "an archaic rule that has no place in a modern legal system".

Supporters include the police, victims' groups and prosecutors. Some have argued that the removal of corroboration could also help widen access to justice for victims, particularly in cases of rape and domestic violence.

Opponents, including many from within the legal profession, have said it could lead to rises in miscarriages of justice.

Justice Committee convener Christine Grahame said the proposal had divided opinion among the MSPs.

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I have always been clear that we are willing to listen and to work with stakeholders on building further safeguards into our reforms”

End Quote Kenny MacAskill Justice secretary

The SNP MSP said: "The committee could not reach agreement on whether removing such a significant and integral part of the criminal justice system would improve 'access to justice' for victims of sexual offences in a meaningful way or indeed secure more convictions.

"Some therefore asked the cabinet secretary to consider removing the relevant sections on corroboration from the bill.

"Others felt that the case had been proved."

Ms Grahame also said the Scottish government needed to provide "much more information on its plans to review additional safeguards" before the Scottish Parliament as a whole voted on the general principles of the bill.

Mr MacAskill said he noted the committee's recommendations and hoped its members would "welcome today's announcement on safeguards".

He said: "I have always been clear that we are willing to listen and to work with stakeholders on building further safeguards into our reforms.

"I therefore welcome the fact that Lord Bonomy has agreed to chair this reference group.

"I am confident that he and his team will carry out a robust and thorough exploration of any additional safeguards which may be required in the light of the corroboration requirement being abolished."

The group is expected to take a year for its deliberations, and will not make any recommendations before the bill is voted on at Holyrood.

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