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Agenda: Scrapping corroboration could put criminal justice system in the dock

Depending on your viewpoint, the requirement for corroborative evidence in criminal proceedings is an obstacle to prosecuting people alleged to have committed appalling crimes, including rape and sexual assault, or a fundamental legal safeguard which prevents miscarriages of justice.

The Law Society of Scotland is seeking to develop the debate on corroboration and has invited groups, both for and against the proposals to abolish the requirement for corroboration, to discuss further the issues surrounding one of Scotland's most ancient judicial safeguards.

Regardless of the views expressed on whether the requirement for corroboration should remain or be abolished, we all want a modern and effective criminal justice system in Scotland and it is important to all of us that those who commit crime are convicted and that victims of crime are supported and protected.

We, like many others, regard the requirement for corroboration as a cornerstone of the Scottish justice system which has existed for centuries as an important safeguard. This alone is no reason for it to remain and we understand the arguments in favour of its abolition.

However, we believe the consequences of the reforms proposed in the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill could be hugely damaging and that considering corroboration in isolation, as the Bill does, runs the risk of radically transforming the criminal justice system in Scotland from one which is widely recognised as having very strong procedural safeguards, to one with much weaker procedural safeguards.

It is not too late to reconsider the proposed reforms and take the opportunity to examine more fully whether or not corroboration has a place in today's justice system.

It is a highly complex issue and we believe there should be a full investigation by the Scottish Law Commission, if not a Royal Commission, to examine if corroboration should be retained in full, in part (as in other jurisdictions), or not at all.

We fear there has not been enough consideration of the potential knock on effects, such as the use of dock identification in criminal trials.

Routine reliance on dock identification of an accused person, sometimes years after an alleged offence, is a distinctive feature of the Scottish criminal justice system.

The requirement for corroboration has been used to justify the procedure but, without it, continued reliance of dock identification of an accused by a single witness runs the risk of mistaken identification, leading to a miscarriage of justice.

Removing the requirement for corroboration could also expose people to inappropriate prosecution.

The Bill says nothing about what would happen in the case of an individual who has alleged that he or she was assaulted, for example, by a police officer or a prison officer, or a pupil who has alleged that a teacher or social worker acted inappropriately towards them.

We do not know the long-term consequences of the abolition of the requirement for corroboration but we predict that adopting a system in which convictions could be made on the evidence of a single witness, with a lack of adequate alternative safeguards, will inevitably increase the risk of miscarriages of justice.

That, combined with proposals elsewhere in the Bill that will make it harder to quash such convictions, could lead not only to disastrous consequences for individuals, but would also risk damaging the reputation of Scotland's criminal justice system as a whole.

I hope that, by inviting organisations such as Women's Aid, Rape Crisis, Victim Support, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service and the Faculty of Advocates to discuss the issues that surround corroboration (especially relating to some of the most devastating offences), we can establish positive and constructive ways to take the debate forward.

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