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Evidence backed justice bill delay

The delay to the Criminal Justice Bill announced yesterday is embarrassing for the Scottish Government but it is the right decision.

Kenny MacAskill, the Justice Secretary, says he remains committed to the bill, including its most controversial clause to abolish the need for corroboration in criminal trials, but, in announcing a delay, he has accepted one of the main arguments of his critics: that a new law should be passed only after proper, detailed scrutiny has been completed.

Before yesterday's announcement, Mr MacAskill had attempted an awkward compromise. The bill was passed in principle by MSPs but the former High Court judge Lord Bonomy was also asked to conduct a review examining what additional safeguards would be needed. The Justice Secretary promised that, after Lord Bonomy issued his report, secondary legislation would be passed if needed.

This was a deeply unsatisfactory compromise, as this newspaper pointed out at the time. Graeme Pearson, Labour's justice spokesman, said it was like asking parliament to write a blank cheque with the promise the goods would be received later. It amounted to the Government saying: "This reform may be flawed, but vote for it and we'll fix it later."

The Scottish Government appears to have finally accepted that this position was unsustainable, which means the plan to scrap the requirement for corroboration is on hold until the review has been completed next spring. Mr MacAskill said the decision was made in a spirit of co-operation but he also said his view on corroboration had not changed and he believed it was a barrier to justice for victims of crimes, in particular rape.

That position is a perfectly legitimate one to take and there is some evidence to support adopting it. According to the Crown Office, more than 150 rape cases could not proceed over the past two years because of the corroboration rule, so it is reasonable to assume abolishing corroboration would have a chance of improving the conviction rate for rape. And, at 7% of reported cases, it needs to be improved.

However, concerns remain that can now be properly explored by Lord Bonomy, free from the threat the law would be passed anyway. The principal concern is that, if the police are no longer forced to find corroborative evidence, the case might be weakened rather than strengthened. There is also concern about possible miscarriages of justice based on the idea that trials would end up as no more than a contest between two competing statements, meaning juries would perhaps be more likely to give the wrong verdict.

Of course, one of the other fundamentals of criminal justice - that an accusation be proved beyond reasonable doubt - would remain and would continue to offer protection to the accused. But the concern over removing corroboration has been sufficiently strong to merit a detailed review before the law is passed. Due to Mr MacAskill's about-turn yesterday, that will now happen.

However, the delay has also highlighted an uncomfortable fact. The Criminal Justice Bill was the Government's flagship piece of legislation in this parliament and, with it being the subject of delay, what is there to take its place?

The fact that the answer appears to be "not much" will add to the suspicion that the Government has prioritised winning the referendum over a strong legislative programme.

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