Justice secretary Kenny MacAskill yesterday said he had accepted a proposal from opposition parties to delay the passage of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill until a review being led by Lord Bonomy reports back next spring. The surprise U-turn means further discussion of the bill will be held back until after the independence referendum, leading opponents to accuse the minister of “parking” the contentious legislation.
A cornerstone of Scots law, corroboration requires two independent pieces of evidence to bring a case to trial.
Supporters of the plan to scrap it, including Frank Mullholland, the Lord Advocate, believe its removal will help bring more offenders to justice, notably in rape and domestic violence cases.
But a number of eminent legal figures have lined up to criticise the proposal.
Mr MacAskill said: “The Scottish Government remains firmly committed to all aspects of the criminal justice bill, including our proposals to abolish the requirement for corroboration – which, as I have said time and again, is a barrier to justice for too many victims of crimes which are committed behind closed doors, such as rape and domestic abuse.
“When we announced the creation of Lord Bonomy’s review group in February, there were calls – including from the Law Society and Faculty of Advocates – for us
to remove the corroboration reform from the bill and to bring forward a separate bill later in the session once Lord Bonomy had reported. That was not acceptable as it is one of the key reforms in the bill and is vital to improving the criminal justice system for vulnerable victims.
“However, we have also made clear our willingness to listen to constructive proposals in relation to this key legislation. That is why we gave careful consideration to, and in the spirit of co-operation have accepted, the suggestion from opposition members that Stage 2 [of the bill] should commence after Lord Bonomy’s review has been completed.”
Mr MacAskill said the delay would have “minimal impact” on the timetable for the legislation, which is due for implementation in 2015-16.
He added: “Most importantly, I now hope it will enable the whole parliament to get behind the progressive reforms in the bill, including the modernising of police powers, enhancement of the rights of people in police custody and removal of the corroboration requirement.”
The government has asked Lord Bonomy to chair a group looking at what alternative safeguards against wrongful conviction could be introduced.
But Mr MacAskill insists “the case has been made” for abolishing corroboration.
The decision to delay the bill was welcomed by both the Law Society of Scotland and Faculty of Advocates.
James Wolffe QC, dean of the faculty, said: “The abolition of corroboration would fundamentally alter our criminal justice system. The government was right to recognise that the implications of that proposal required further examination.
“It has rightly now recognised that parliament should not be asked to consider this aspect of the bill further until Lord Bonomy’s review is complete.”
Ian Cruickshank, convener of the Law Society of Scotland’s criminal law committee, added: “This is very good news. The Scottish Government is to be commended for listening and responding positively to the many groups, including the Law Society, who have expressed such concern over the approach which was being taken.
“It makes complete sense for the justice committee to be able to consider how the bill would work as a whole, including any recommendations that the Bonomy review group brings forward, prior to its second-stage reading.
“We have consistently called for a full review of the law of corroboration. That will help ensure we continue to have a criminal justice system that we can be proud of and which respects the rights of the accused and the complainer.”
This month, former solicitor general and High Court judge Lord McCluskey renewed his attack on Mr MacAskill’s plans.
In an 18-page letter to MSPs, he warned that removing the need for evidence from two sources would put too much faith in “flawed police practices”.
Yesterday, the justice secretary’s political opponents welcomed news of the delay, but questioned its timing.
Tory justice spokeswoman Margaret Mitchell said: “It was made perfectly clear the plan to abolish corroboration was wrong, and that’s something we have been telling the Scottish Government for months.
“Looking at this with a cynical eye, it could be observed that this has been parked until well after the referendum.
“But what Kenny MacAskill will not be able to avoid in the run-up to September is why he ignored so much of the evidence in the first place.”
Labour justice spokesman Graeme Pearson said: “This is a welcome U-turn. The force of opposition to the SNP’s approach was significant. While we all support the need to help more victims of crime see justice done, we needed to see what would replace corroboration.”
He added: “This is a welcome climbdown by the cabinet secretary.”
Lib Dem Alison McInnes added: “Kenny MacAskill’s obstinacy has risked bringing parliament into disrepute, so I welcome his change of heart. This is a victory for common sense. People will breathe a sigh of relief today having watched the justice secretary step back from the brink.”