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Justice system at risk of populism

The Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill, has few friends in the legal profession right now, not least because of his determination to abolish the centuries-old requirement of corroboration in rape cases.

Now MSPs on the influential Holyrood Justice Committee have poured scorn on his handling of the merger of Scottish police forces. A minority report to the committee's inquiry into Police Scotland will challenge the Justice Secretary's costing of the reform which, as we report today, has been described as "calculated on the back of a fag packet with nothing to justify it". Tory, Labour and LibDem MSPs on Holyrood's Justice Committee have refused to endorse the official report, which has been bounced through on the strength of the Government's majority.

This is disturbing on a number of levels. Holyrood committees are supposed to run on the principle of consensus. It is most unfortunate that opposition MSPs have had to issue a separate report in order to have their criticisms aired. In a unicameral parliament with no upper house to revise legislation, it is essential that governments listen to all views. There is every indication that the Scottish Government has been seeking to sweep the problems of Police Scotland under the carpet so that they do not interfere with the referendum campaign.

However, the affair raises more troubling questions still about the handling of the justice brief by Mr MacAskill. His eye has not been on the ball. He is too keen on passionately promoting crowd-pleasing measures like the abolition of corroboration, which many lawyers and human rights campaigners fear could lead to miscarriages of justice. Mr MacAskill finally bowed to pressure last month and agreed a one-year review, which many hope will see corroboration reprieved. But even criticism from within his own party ranks has not shaken the Justice Secretary's dogmatic belief in this measure.

This does not bode well for the Scottish Government's latest foray into vote-catching legal reform: the proposal to introduce a so-called "Clare's Law" giving people the right to know of any history of domestic abuse by their partner. The government is also proposing a new law on domestic violence. The objectives may be laudable but, in the wrong hands, such moves could lead to bureaucratic witch-hunts and spurious court actions. Domestic abuse is already illegal and it is not clear why introducing a vague law against "coercive control" - described by supporters of the measure as "a pattern of abuse within a relationship by physical, sexual, psychological, financial or emotional behaviour" - will help deal with the problem. Subjective offences like financial abuse may be impossible to prove in a court of law.

Our justice system is not in safe hands. Mr MacAskill's headstrong and sometimes belligerent approach, most notably in his refusal to heed advice in the Lockerbie affair, is damaging the credibility of Scottish law. It is time that he moved on to another, less high profile, Cabinet position.

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