Justice Committee disagrees on case to abolish corroboration requirement

06.02.2014

The Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee is not convinced that the case has been made to abolish the requirement for corroboration and on balance recommend that the Cabinet Secretary for Justice considers removing the provisions in the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill, according to its Stage 1 report published today. The Justice Committee notes however the Cabinet Secretary has undertaken to instigate a review to consider additional safeguards, but the Committee requires more detailed information.

The Justice Committee agreed that, if the general requirement for the removal of corroboration continues to be considered, this should only happen after an independent review of what other reforms may be needed to ensure that the criminal justice system as a whole contains appropriate checks and balances.

Justice Committee Convener Christine Grahame MSP said: 

“This Bill includes major reforms of the criminal justice system, including police powers of arrest and holding suspects in custody. In the main, the Bill has not been contentious. However, the proposal to abolish the corroboration requirement is a reform which has divided opinion on the Committee. 

“The Committee could not reach agreement on whether removing such a significant and integral part of the criminal justice system would improve ‘access to justice’ for victims of sexual offences in a meaningful way or indeed secure more convictions. Some therefore asked the Cabinet Secretary to consider removing the relevant sections on corroboration from the Bill. Others felt that the case had been proved.

“We have serious concerns regarding the prosecution and conviction rates of sexual offences, rape and domestic abuse. We therefore ask the Scottish Government to take necessary steps to address these public attitudes.

“Some Committee members do not believe, in the event that the requirement for corroboration is removed, that concerns relating to the need for further reform can be explored properly during the passage of the Bill and are therefore calling on the Scottish Government to provide much more information on its plans to review additional safeguards before the Stage 1 debate expected later this month. We have requested more detailed explanation following the Cabinet Secretary’s letter of 4 February.

 “While we commend the Scottish Government’s aim to improve the Scottish criminal justice system with this Bill, there are clearly significant hurdles that must be overcome before we actually get that new, improved system.” 

The Justice Committee supports the general principles of the Bill, with the exception of the proposals regarding corroboration. 

The Committee highlighted a number of other concerns with the Bill including:

  • Some of the terminology in the Bill concerning arrest is confusing and is not convinced that members of the public, the accused or the media will be able to distinguish between a ‘person officially accused’ and ‘a person not officially accused’. It has similar concerns regarding the concept of ‘de-arrest’ when grounds for arrest no longer exist.
  • The need for assurances that investigative liberation will not have an unnecessary impact on the suspect’s private life, while allowing the police to conduct complex investigations which could not be completed while the person is initially detained.
  • Concerns that the definition of vulnerable person in the Bill may not capture all individuals needing additional support when in custody. It asks the Scottish Government to further consider the definition of vulnerable persons in the Bill and reflect on consistency of definition in the Victims and Witnesses (Scotland) Act 2014.
  • There are still mixed views on the Committee as to whether detention beyond 6 hours is necessary, particularly given the statistics supplied to the Committee by Police Scotland for June – July 2013 it showed that 80.4 per cent of people were detained up to six hours and 19.2 per cent were detained for between 6 and 12 hours.
  • The Committee would like further information on the types of ‘exceptional circumstances’ in which the Scottish Government envisages that an extension to the custody detention limit would be granted; who would approve the extension and how the Scottish Government would ensure such extensions do not become commonplace?
  • The Committee welcomes the Cabinet Secretary’s undertaking to consider raising the age of criminal responsibility and would welcome regular dates on this work.

Background

The Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill comprises of provisions which have been developed from recommendations of Lord Carloway’s Review of Scottish Criminal Law and Practice and from recommendations of Sheriff Principal Bowen’s Independent Review of Sheriff and Jury Procedure. The Bill also makes provision to increase the jury majority to two-thirds to return a guilty verdict which the Scottish Government considered necessary in light of the removal of the requirement for corroboration in criminal cases.

The Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill was introduced in the Scottish Parliament on 20 June 2013 by the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Kenny MacAskill MSP.
The Justice Committee issued a call for evidence on 26 June 2013 and then took evidence on the Bill over 11 meetings. It heard from a range of criminal justice bodies, victims’ groups, legal and human rights experts, as well as from Lord Carloway, Sheriff Principal Bowen and from the Cabinet Secretary for Justice.