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Salmond facing questions over MacAskill legal U-turn

ALEX Salmond is expected to face questions about the role of Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill after he bowed to pressure and shelved plans to end the historic requirement for corroboration in Scottish criminal cases.

In an embarrassing climbdown, Mr MacAskill announced the Government's flagship Criminal Justice Bill would be put on hold for a year, until a review designed to minimise the risk of miscarriages of justice had been completed.

The decision was welcomed by lawyers who have been fiercely opposed to the plans and by MSPs concerned the bill was being rushed through without adequate safeguards.

However, opposition politicians are expected to press Mr Salmond at First Minister's Questions today on whether Mr MacAskill is the right man to oversee the complex reforms after the debacle.

The bill had been due to be passed by the end of June, with the Government arguing it was vital to improve conviction rates, especially for rape, where gathering separate pieces of corroborating evidence can be difficult.

Mr MacAskill made his announcement yesterday as he faced questions from MSPs on his justice portfolio.

FMQs sketch: savouring Kenny MacAskill's public flogging

He stressed the government remained "firmly committed" to the policy but added: "We have also made clear our willingness to listen to constructive proposals in relation to this key legislation."

The bill cleared its initial parliamentary hurdle in February by 64 votes to 61 after an ill-tempered debate in which Mr MacAskill suggested opposition was politically motivated and linked to the independence referendum.

The second phase of its passage through Holyrood will now be delayed until April next year.

MSPs will resume their scrutiny of the bill after a review headed by Lord Bonomy, the former High Court judge, has had time to consider a range of possible measures to ensure ending the need for corroboration does not result in wrongful convictions, a key concern of lawyers.

Despite stressing his continued commitment to the policy, the announcement marked a humiliating U-turn by Mr MacAskill.

He has repeatedly signalled his intention to face down opposition led by the Law Society of Scotland and the Faculty of Advocates.

In an uncompromising conference speech six months ago he sent the message that "laws are made by parliament, not one profession".

James Wolffe, QC, dean of the Faculty of Advocates, said: "The Government was right to recognise that the implications of that proposal required further examination."

Ian Cruickshank, convener of the Law Society of Scotland's criminal law committee, said the decision made complete sense.

He added: "I hope this will present the opportunity for Lord Bonomy to fully examine the interconnections of the corroboration requirement with all other aspects of the criminal justice system, which have not so far been examined."

But another leading Scots lawyer, Professor Peter Watson, said the proposals remained fundamentally flawed.

He said: "The emphasis here is not about getting to the truth, it is not about doing justice, it is about increasing conviction rates.

"The whole purpose of a criminal trial is to determine was a crime committed and was the accused, who is presumed innocent until proved guilty, the perpetrator?

"There is a constant referencing to 'victims' rather than 'complainers'.

"If we start the criminal process by assuming someone is a 'victim' then it follows that any trial which fails to convict has somehow failed the victim.

"The logic then is that the trial process needs to be changed to make sure the assumption that someone is a victim is shown to be correct. Why bother with trials?"

The wide-ranging Criminal Justice Bill is the Scottish Government's biggest piece of work not connected directly with the independence referendum.

Scottish Labour's justice spokesman Graeme Pearson said: "Just a few weeks ago, Kenny MacAskill attacked everyone who dared to question his approach to abolishing this significant piece of the Scottish criminal justice system.

"Now he is adopting that very same approach which he lambasted."

Scottish Conservative justice spokeswoman Margaret Mitchell MSP said: "Looking at this with a cynical eye it could be observed that this has been parked until well after the referendum."

Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson Alison McInnes said: "Kenny MacAskill's obstinacy on this has risked bringing parliament into disrepute."

Victim Support and Rape Crisis - who backed the policy along with police officers - also welcomed the opportunity for fuller consultation.

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