Chris Marshall: Law changes could see justice done

THE murder of Surjit Singh Chhokar in 1998 has so far led to two trials and two separate official inquiries. What it has not led to, however, is a conviction.

The principle of double jeopardy has existed in Scots law for centuries. Picture: Neil Hanna
The principle of double jeopardy has existed in Scots law for centuries. Picture: Neil Hanna

Mr Chhokar, a waiter, was stabbed to death outside his home in Overtown, Lanarkshire, more than 15 years ago.

Earlier this month it was announced that three men previously cleared of his murder would face a re-trial following changes made to Scotland’s law of double jeopardy. Under legislation introduced in 2011, the double jeopardy principle, which stops an acquitted suspect being tried again, can be set aside if new evidence emerges.

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Ronnie Coulter, his nephew Andrew Coulter and David Montgomery were acquitted of Mr Chhokar’s murder after two separate trials in 1999 and 2000.

Two official inquiries were ordered in their wake. One of them made allegations of “institutional racism,” echoing Sir William MacPherson’s inquiry into the Metropolitan Police’s handling of the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence in south London in 1993. Following the publication of the reports in 2001, the then lord advocate, Colin Boyd, said the Chhokar family had been failed by the police and prosecution services.

The Crown Office’s recent application to have the three men’s acquittals set aside follows another application – already granted – for the re-trial of Angus Sinclair, who was acquitted of the World’s End murders of 17-year-olds Christine Eadie and Helen Scott in 1977.

The principle of double jeopardy has existed in Scots law for centuries, but changes brought about in England and Wales – prompted by Stephen Lawrence’s murder – led to a review of the system north of the Border.

The Double Jeopardy (Scotland) Act, which allows for exceptions to the principle, set in train the reforms of the legal system being carried out by the SNP government. Perhaps the most contentious of those reforms is the plan to scrap corroboration – the need for two supporting pieces of evidence to bring a case to trial.

Justice secretary Kenny MacAskill has decided to delay passage of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill, of which scrapping corroboration is part, until after a review led by Lord Bonomy has reported back. Despite support for that move, Mr MacAskill is under increasing pressure, with growing calls for him to step down. Concerns about how the creation of Scotland’s single police force was handled, raised yesterday by MSPs, have not helped matters.

New trials in the Chhokar and World’s End cases would lead to a huge amount of media interest. That justice is done for the victims’ families will be the overriding concern, but the focus will also be on how Scotland’s new-look legal system rises to the challenge.