Leaders: Scots law | UK debt

Kenny MacAskill. Picture: Julie Bull

Kenny MacAskill. Picture: Julie Bull

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IN SCOTLAND we are rightly proud of our distinctive legal system, which traces its roots back to Roman law, and which was one of the many distinctly Scottish institutions preserved after the Act of Union in 1707.

By and large the Scottish justice system has served the nation well, though in recent times it has, inevitably, had to accommodate the influence of civil law south of the Border, particularly rulings of the House of Lords and latterly the UK Supreme Court. European law has also played a growing role in the evolution of Scots law.

It is in the context of adjusting to the modern world that we should see the latest Scottish Government proposals for a wide-ranging review of Scots law and practice. However distinguished its antecedents, our law cannot stand still. It cannot be preserved in aspic.

Perhaps the most controversial proposal from Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill is for the abolition of corroboration, a centuries-old pillar of the legal system north of the Border. On the face of it, corroboration makes the Scottish system fairer, requiring there to be two independent pieces of evidence to secure a conviction.

It is for this reason that our senior judges and the Law Society of Scotland, which represents lawyers, objected to the idea when it was first mooted.

It would be wrong to dismiss out of hand the concerns of the people who work in the justice system and we do not doubt the sincerity of their objections. They argue that removing corroboration might result in trials becoming merely a contest between one side and another, albeit under oath, thereby increasing the likelihood of a miscarriage of justice.

Against this argument must be placed the problems of securing convictions in some cases, particularly rape and sexual assault. In most rape cases corroboration is impossible, and so men who should be convicted of a heinous crime are escaping justice.

Given that Mr MacAskill has said he will introduce safeguards – a conviction could only be secured with two-thirds of the 15 jurors agreeing instead of the current majority – we believe that, on balance, corroboration should be abolished.

Similarly, it is hard to see a case for the retention of Scotland’s famous – some would say infamous – not proven verdict. This verdict is neither legal fish nor fowl. If someone is tried and the verdict is not proven, rather than not guilty, a pall of suspicion remains over them. If the prosecution fails to secure a conviction then the accused person must, logically, be not guilty.

It is disappointing Mr MacAskill wants further consideration of the not proven verdict, rather than abolishing it alongside corroboration.

However, taken together, his reforms amount to sensible modernisation which allows Scots law to retain its unique character but also move with the times.

UK debt begs question of investment

Debt is not necessarily a bad thing. Businesses borrow to fund investment and expansion. We borrow money to buy our homes, or to buy goods and services. Without the capacity to borrow, the modern economy would simply be unable to function. However, there is debt and there is government debt.

Figures show UK government borrowing rose slightly in

2012-13 to £118.8 billion. Borrowing fell to £12.7bn in May, down from £15.6bn a year earlier. Taking into account a £3.2bn one-off windfall tax payment from Swiss banks and £3.9bn from the Bank of England’s quantitative easing fund, monthly borrowing fell to £8.8bn.

Yesterday Treasury Minister David Gauke claimed there was “some good news” in the figures, but said the government has “still got an issue with our deficit”. As head-in-the-sand political sophistry goes this takes the biscuit. What are the lessons from these figures? First, there is little comfort in the slightly better figures derived from the one-off bonuses from Switzerland or the QE scheme. They are just that,

one-offs.

Over many months, we have supported the view of many economists, experts and indeed the Scottish Government in arguing that UK plc badly needs economic stimulus, a dose of sensible investment made through developing new infrastructure schemes.

By diverting spending to these projects, jobs would be created and more taxes would be raised. These would, in turn, help reduce our debt and deficit.

Yesterday’s figures demonstrate yet again the need for such investment. That, the UK government must accept, is the issue it has to address.

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