It’s clear the Justice Secretary has recognised the scale of the decision and the issues involved in what was previously treated by his predecessor as a relatively simple matter.
When the work of Lord Bonomy’s expert group began, it became clear this was a massively complex change that was being contemplated. Corroboration has been a cornerstone of the Scottish legal system for centuries. The thought that it could be removed without much ado was overly simplistic.
That Lord Bonomy wanted to see corroboration remain in certain circumstances was a perfectly reasonable recommendation when you consider some of the problems we’ve seen with, for example, confession evidence.
But it would not surprise me if the Scottish Government had been taken aback by the autumn report of Lord Bonomy’s expert group. This made it absolutely clear how enormous a job it was going to be, and that to do it properly would require more time and thought.
It’s interesting that this Cabinet Secretary has now twice demonstrated a great capacity for being his own man and showing strong leadership. He scrapped the idea for a women’s prison in Inverclyde when it seemed the decision to go ahead was close to a done deal. He listened to the evidence and decided he wanted to do the right thing for the right reasons.
Corroboration does not require two separate sources for every piece of evidence in a trial. Rather, it is two separate sources of the two key facts – has a crime been committed and is the accused responsible for it. In fact, corroboration can be achieved fairly easily and whether it operates as effectively as a safeguard as it once did is a serious question. That said, there have been cases which were not taken to court which probably should have been because of the need for corroboration.
I think Lord Bonomy’s report makes it clear that only thorough reform of the whole system can ensure a fair trial will still be achieved in Scotland. The government has made it clear corroboration is still going. I think it’s only a matter of time. Our system will look very different in the next five years.
l John Scott, QC, is a solicitor advocate and convener of the Howard League for Penal Reform in Scotland.