Speaking to an empty chamber, Justice Secretary Michael Matheson announced the Scottish Government are to drop proposals to abolish corroboration in Scotland.
The proposals were shelved almost one year ago pending the findings of Lord Bonomy’s study into alternative safeguards. Lord Bononomy’s study was published last week and proposed a number of balances to support the accused. It also recommended corroboration be maintained as-is for evidence that is related to confession or heresay.
In response to the study, Mr Matheson said:
“Given this approach, I do not consider there is sufficient time to complete this work before the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill resumes its parliamentary passage.
“On that basis, it is clear to me that proceeding with the removal of the corroboration requirement in that Bill would be neither appropriate nor feasible.
“The Bill should proceed with amendments to remove corroboration provisions from the Bill, and also to remove the related increase in the jury majority required for conviction.
“Removing the corroboration provisions from the Criminal Justice Bill will allow the other provisions in the Bill to go forward as soon as parliamentary timetables permit.”
While the arguments concerning corroboration are complex and intricate, corroboration itself is a simple concept. Corroboration states that all accusations must be corroborated. In other words, there must be two separate sources of evidence before an accusation be leveled at the accused.
Defenders of corroboration – of which there were many – feel it is an immutable part of Scots Law. It acts as a safeguard against conviction by hearsay, mistaken witnesses and circumstantial evidence. Abolishing corroboration – regardless of new safeguards – would undermine the judicial system in Scotland.
The push to abolish corroboration came largely from then Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill, who described corroboration as a “barrier to justice for too many victims of crimes which are committed behind closed doors”.
Rape convictions, for example, are particularly elusive in Scotland because the offence usually takes place without witnesses and defendants are ‘protected’ by corroboration.
The decision to shelf Mr MacAskill’s plans was welcomed by organisations and individuals across Scotland. Alistair Morris, president of the Law Society of Scotland, said:
“We strongly welcome the Cabinet Secretary’s announcement. We consistently stated that the proposal to remove the corroboration requirement in criminal proceedings should be subject to a full review.
“We also expressed concern about the speed of the process in our response to Lord Bonomy’s review consultation. Deferring this until the next parliamentary session will allow for further consideration of this complex area of law and further scrutiny of necessary safeguards within criminal proceedings.”
The decision has strong political backing too. Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives all praised the decision to retain corroboration.
There has even been support for the decision from some of MacAskill’s supporters. Sandy Brindley of Rape Crisis Scotland said:
“It’s probably a good thing that they are going to take some time to properly look at the implications. In particular, it would not have been a good thing if the size of the minimum jury majority had been increased without the not proven verdict being abolished. This could have led to a reduction in the number of rape convictions.”