Justice secretary Kenny MacAskill narrowly won a key vote on the controversial issue of corroboration during an emotional and rowdy debate in Holyrood yesterday.
He had to rely on the SNP’s majority to ensure the proposal remains in the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill by just three votes.
Presiding Officer Tricia Marwick asked MSPs to “reflect on their behaviour” after opposition members reacted angrily when Mr MacAskill drew comparisons with the independence debate, claiming other parties were following the Scottish Conservatives’ lead.
He reserved special condemnation for Scottish Labour. Mr MacAskill yesterday told the chamber: “Labour has sold its soul and is in danger of selling out victims of crime.”
The stage-one vote means the Scottish Parliament has backed the general provisions of the bill. This includes ending the requirement for corroboration – the need for evidence in Scottish criminal trials to come from two sources to bring a criminal case to court – although it will face further scrutiny. However, several MSPs accused Mr MacAskill of weakening his argument by asking members to vote before the Lord Bonomy review group returns with alternative safeguards against miscarriage of justice.
Patrick Harvie, Scottish Greens MSP, said: “Why may parliament not vote on both issues at the same time? The government accepts that a new system of safeguards is going to be required. If Scottish law is going to evolve, what is it evolving into? I want to know that before making my decision.”
Many MSPs were offended by Mr MacAskill trying to characterise the debate as the government on the side of victims, while its political opponents sided with lawyers – the Law Society of Scotland and the Faculty of Advocates opposed the move.
Alison McInnes, Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP, told the justice secretary that “choosing to portray this debate as a contest between a primitive justice system and the ‘blood’ and ‘tears’ of victims is disingenuous, misleading and devalues the debate”.
Mr MacAskill said: “This is about bringing fairness to those who fall victim of criminal acts, including greater access to justice for victims by ensuring cases can go forward based on the overall quality of evidence.”
Conservative justice spokeswoman Margaret Mitchell, who unsuccessfully put forward an amendment to remove the abolition of corroboration from the bill, said Mr MacAskill’s position had caused a “storm of controversy”.
The government has asked Lord Bonomy to chair a group looking at what alternative safeguards against wrongful conviction could be introduced.
Mr MacAskill insisted “the case has been” made for abolishing corroboration.
Referencing a Police Scotland figure that abolishing corroboration would give 3,000 more victims a chance of justice each year, he added: “These are not just numbers but real people’s lives”
However, Ms McInnes accused him of peddling “false hope”.
Justice committee member Elaine Murray, a Labour MSP, added: “The experience of an unsuccessful trial could be horrific for a victim, and leave her exposed if the accused is not
Several SNP MSPs lined up behind the cabinet secretary, including Sandra White, Linda Fabiani and Christian Allard, the latter saying: “How much more consultation do we need? How many more reports?”
Last night, Ian Cruickshank, convener of the Law Society’s criminal law committee, said: “Abolishing the requirement for corroboration, without sufficient safeguards, presents a serious risk to Scotland’s criminal justice system.”
But the Faculty of Advocates said its focus was now on ensuring strong safeguards were put in corroboration’s place. Gordon Jackson QC, vice-dean, said: “The onus will now rest heavily on Lord Bonomy’s review group to come up with workable additional safeguards against the risk of miscarriages of justice.”
The recommendation to scrap corroboration is supported by the Scottish Government, the Crown Office, Police Scotland and campaigners for victims of domestic violence and rape.