Scotland’s justice system is failing to bring enough child sexual abuse cases to court, MSPs have warned, with too many prosecutions being abandoned before reaching a jury.
Doubts over the reliability of witnesses means only a “small minority” of cases are coming before a judge, according to the cross-party group on adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse at Holyrood.
It said juries should have the opportunity to determine for themselves how reliable evidence is after hearing from victims.
But the claim has been rejected by prosecution chiefs, who insist cases always go to court when there is enough evidence.
The Jimmy Savile scandal and harrowing claims of historic abuse at the Fort Augustus Abbey boarding school in the Highlands have thrust the issue into the public spotlight in the past year.
The MSPs, along with other expert members of the group, have voiced concerns over controversial Scottish Government plans to ditch the ancient principle of corroboration in Scots law, which requires evidence to come from two separate sources.
They instead call for it to be reformed and more “circumstantial” evidence to be used as a second source, allowing a more “flexible” approach to cases which are taken to trial.
“We would also like to see the Crown put far more cases of child sexual abuse before juries to let them judge the integrity of victims – adults or children – for themselves, rather than deciding that only a small minority of cases should come to court,” the cross-party group states in a submission to Holyrood’s justice committee.
Child witnesses are already heard in many other cases involving serious crime, the group says, and special measures can be used to protect them in the witness box like a screen, video link or even a supporter, after recent changes in the law.
“If child witnesses are properly supported and wish to go ahead they should be allowed to,” the MSP-led group adds.
“In our view the Crown should therefore allow more cases to proceed to court allowing the judge/sheriff and jury to become more protagonist in determining the strength or weakness of particular evidential information.
“This is a risky strategy, of course, but we think that, where the basic considerations for corroboration exist, then the court should be the place to determine. This is far more in the public interest than ‘no-proving’ cases where corroboration clearly exists but is not perhaps strong enough for a sure-fire conviction.”
The group is led by Conservative Margaret Mitchell and includes influential Nationalist backbencher Kenneth Gibson, Holyrood deputy presiding officer Elaine Smith and Liberal Democrat justice spokeswoman Alison McInnes.
It also includes experts from a range of bodies like Children 1st, Barnardo’s, Stop It Now and the Kingdom Abuse Survivor’s Project.
But a spokesman for the Crown Office, which prosecutes criminal cases in Scotland, rejected claims that it isn’t doing enough.
“It is incorrect to suggest that the Crown takes only a small minority of cases to court,” he said.
“On the contrary, the Crown takes proceedings where there is sufficient admissible evidence.
“The prosecution of sexual offences can be complex and challenging, and this can be made more so by the operation of the current requirement for corroboration.”
Crimes often take place in private without any witnesses present and when cases are historic – including some committed decades earlier – it usually means there is no forensic evidence left to collect.
But specialist prosecutors already identify corroborative evidence from a “wide variety of sources” which is presented in court as evidence, the spokesman added.
“We support the Scottish Governments plans to abolish the requirement for corroboration which represents as a barrier to justice for a number of victims of sexual and domestic abuse crime.”