Police have no role in political policy

The attempts by senior serving policemen Sir Stephen House and Chief Superintendent David O’Connor to drive the political decision on corroboration (Letters, 17 January) demonstrate a constitutional breakdown.

They are servants of the state, not its masters, and should be more circumspect in their language so as to avoid personally attacking a senior retired judge, Lord McCluskey.

Their interventions paradoxically increase the case for retention of corroboration, precisely because of the apparent unsubstantiated bias in their outbursts.

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House says the legal profession considers the current system “as near perfect”. Under-cross examination, he would not be able to produce any such extravagant language used by legally trained minds.

McCluskey himself articulated the need for further dialogue with government so as to ensure sound convictions while protecting the innocent against wrongful allegations of guilt.

O’Connor then says McCluskey “is unable to cite any Scottish examples”, when reference was clearly made in his original speech to 100 instances where Scottish police officers are subject to discipline for misconduct.

If McCluskey wanted to be more specific on Scottish cases where evidence was fitted up, there is the recent Shirley McKie fingerprinting scandal; and there was the 2005 instance of George McPhee, imprisoned for more than 17 years on dodgy police-prepared evidence where, on appeal, it was conceded that “no forensic evidence existed linking the appellant to the deceased, to the murder weapon, or the locus”.

Then there was the case of Sheriff Clive Shenton, who committed a witness to overnight prison for contempt of court, in that she withdrew a statement.

It seemed to him she was wasting court time. When it subsequently transpired that the police had exaggerated her original deposition, the Sheriff – not, apparently, the policeman involved – was disciplined. Many consider a fine career was destroyed as a result.

While these are, I hope, rare instances, and actually involve the manipulation of corroborative evidence, we need to ask: without the existing rule, how many more miscarriages of justice will there be, when the subjective judgments of police and prosecutors, not objective corroboration, drive the basis of guilt?

Peter Smaill



I am startled by the correspondence on Lord McCluskey’s comments. McCluskey may or may not be right. Personally, I have agreed with much of what he has said over the decades, but not always. Often, he has fought for children’s, women’s and victims’ rights and services, since 1974 to my knowledge, and I salute those efforts and achievements.

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In the end the corroboration question will be a democratic, political choice. I hope some progress may be made by learning from elsewhere, not just Holland.

I hesitate to ask the question but am I alone in feeling slightly scared by the tenor of the Chief Constable’s letter, with the support of Mr O’Connor and Ms Maitland?

If raises questions when the Chief Constable of Scotland writes: “There is a danger that the strength of the legal establishment drowns out the voices of victims here – often victims of sexual and domestic abuse who are calling out for justice.”

If he and his force are not accountable to law, as practised by “the legal establishment”, then to whom are they accountable?

I am not part of the legal establishment but I know something of it and its history, and I respect it greatly. We are all flawed. Slowly and carefully, I am sure the best way forward in respect of corroboration will be found.

(Prof) Angus Skinner

Nethy Bridge


Lord McCluskey has stirred up a hornet’s nest in his observations about what he feels are the relevant repercussions of the political decision to remove the need for corroboration in the face of almost unanimous opposition from those within and without the justice system.

Predictably, the police have manned the barricades with a robust rebuttal of his criticisms in which they appear to have missed his important qualification, that “most policemen do an honest, competent job; but the courts are not there to support the police. Their purpose is to do justice according to law”.

I value the role that the police play in cleaning up the often self-inflicted mess that society imposes on itself and keeping that society safe.

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This does not render them immune from comment, challenge and criticism, however. It seems that in an age when politicians have created such a powerful and influential leviathan as Police Scotland that their leaders should be more open to opposition, learn to sort out the rhetoric from legitimate comment and avoid throwing out the baby with the bath water.

The facts remain that occasionally police officers accidentally or deliberately misapply the law. Sometimes the individual’s only defence against these excesses is the intervention of the Lord McCluskeys of this world on platforms provided by journals such as The Scotsman.

The core of what Lord McCluskey said still rings true: “A fundamental concern of the courts is to ensure that injustice is not done as a result of the too-ready acceptance of claims by alleged victims: their evidence needs to be independently tested.”

No amount of rhetoric or bluster can hide the fact that the politically expedient removal of corroboration is a catastrophic decision that will bring succour to neither victims nor the falsely accused.

As a believer in the principle of independence, I wonder what the apparent failure of justice minister Kenny 
MacAskill to listen to the mass of voices raised against him tells us about life in an independent Scotland.

Iain A J McKie

South Beach Roa


The proposal to abolish the need for corroborating evidence in criminal cases is deeply worrying.

While I have every sympathy for the victims of rape and domestic assault, and acknowledge the difficulties involved in obtaining a conviction, I do not regard the greatly increased risk of wrongful conviction as being a reasonable trade-off. Personally, I would rather see 99 guilty people get off scot-free than have one completely innocent person convicted.

David Hamill

East Linton

East Lothian