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MacAskill under fire as judge appointed for reforms review

THE Law Society of Scotland has again condemned proposals by Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill for pushing through his plans to abolish the requirement for corroboration in criminal trials.

Its criticism came after Mr MacAskill, in a letter to the Scottish Parliament Justice Committee, announced he had already approached "a highly respected judge" to lead his proposed independent review group into additional safeguards for the rights of the accused to enable abolition of corroboration.

Mr MacAskill agreed to set up the group following concerns over the impact of removing the centuries-old requirement for two corroborating pieces of evidence to prove guilt. The abolition of corroboration is included in the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill.

Mr MacAskill previously told the Committee that if the Bill passes he would ensure further consideration was given to other safeguards, including a final vote in Parliament, before abolition takes effect.

However, Ian Cruickshank, convener of the Law Society of Scotland's Criminal Law Committee, said the approach was "neither the desired nor expected route for any primary legislation" and he called for a full review on the abolition of corroboration.

In a letter to the committee, Mr MacAskill wrote: "I have recently approached a highly respected senior judge to lead an independent reference group in considering other areas of criminal law where reforms may be recommended in light of the proposed abolition of the corroboration requirement.

"I am currently agreeing the details of the remit for this group and we are taking the Lord President's views into account.

"My intention would be for the Government to then bring forward secondary legislation in light of any recommendations made. If the reform is passed, it would not be commenced before this secondary legislation has been approved by the Scottish Parliament.

"I think this can be done without significant delay to the reform, which was always intended to be implemented in the financial year 2015/16."

Mr Cruickshank recognised that the Justice Secretary had listened to "very serious concerns" and was now prepared to carry out a further review.

"However, the approach suggested by the Cabinet Secret­ary is neither the desired nor expected route for any primary legislation," he said. "To leave the detail to subsequent subordinate legislation is not the correct approach to this most controversial and fundamental change to the rules of evidence governing our criminal law."

He added: "If the Scottish Government remains intent on abolishing the requirement for corroboration, this should take place only after there has been a full review, so that the interconnections of the corroboration requirement with all other aspects of the criminal justice system, which have not so far been examined, can be properly explored.

"Our firm view is that the only way to proceed would be to delete Section 57 (which abolishes the requirement for corroboration) from the Bill. The Cabinet Secretary should then create a statutory review panel to conduct the review, and in the light of the review's report, introduce a Bill to give effect to it. The Society would strongly support and participate in such a review."

Supporters say the removal of corroboration is necessary to help widen access to justice for victims, particularly in cases of rape and domestic violence where corroborating evidence can be difficult to obtain. Those opposed to the reform fear it could result in an increase in miscarriages of justice.

The Committee will publish its Stage 1 Report in the near future.

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