Government urged to ditch plans to abolish need for corroboration
Majority of MSPs on Justice Committee do not believe the case has been made for change.
The Scottish Government is being urged to consider ditching controversial plans to abolish the requirement for corroboration from criminal justice legislation.
Holyrood's Justice Committee made the plea as it was revealed the majority of MSPs on the committee do not believe the case has been made for the change.
In a report the MSPs said: "The majority of committee members are of the view that the case has not been made for abolishing the general requirement for corroboration and recommend that the Scottish Government consider removing the provisions from the Bill."
As they published their report, the Scottish Government announced former high court judge Lord Bonomy is to head up a special group, looking at what safeguards might be required if corroboration is abolished.
Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill said he remained "committed to this essential and long-overdue reform as the corroboration rule can prevent strong cases which could be prosecuted in other jurisdictions from being taken forward".
He added: "Scotland is the only country in the world which has been identified as having the requirement and this is acting as a barrier to justice and denying too many victims their opportunity to have their day in court."
But MSPs on the Justice Committee said they were "concerned that the case for abolition has paid insufficient regard to the importance of this requirement within the Scottish criminal justice system".
Tory justice spokeswoman Margaret Mitchell described the report as "damning" and added: "If Kenny MacAskill has any respect for the Scottish Parliament he must now take corroboration out of the Criminal Justice Bill so that it can be properly considered."
The committee has been scrutinising the Scottish Government's Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill, which includes plans to abolish the centuries-old requirement for corroboration — which means that currently evidence against an accused person must come from more than one source.
One of Scotland's top judges, Lord Carloway, called for the change in a review of the criminal justice system, insisting corroboration is "an archaic rule that has no place in a modern legal system".
The proposal has been welcomed by some, including the police, victims' groups and prosecutors, with some arguing removing the need for corroboration will make it easier to take cases of sexual assault and domestic abuse to court.
But there has been fierce opposition from within the legal profession to the move.
In their report the committee said they were "not convinced" ending the requirement would "improve 'access to justice' in a meaningful way for victims of crimes, such as rape and domestic abuse", pointing out these cases were "often difficult to successfully prosecute".
Convener Christine Grahame said: "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."
Ms Grahame also said the Scottish Government needed to provide "much more information on its plans to review additional safeguards" before the Scottish Parliament as a whole votes on the general principles of the Bill.
She added: "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."
Mr MacAskill said he noted the committee's recommendations and hoped its members would "welcome today's announcement on safeguards".
He stated: "I have always been clear that we are willing to listen and to work with stakeholders on building further safeguards into our reforms. I therefore welcome the fact that Lord Bonomy has agreed to chair this reference group.
"I am confident that he and his team will carry out a robust and thorough exploration of any additional safeguards which may be required in the light of the corroboration requirement being abolished."
The group is expected to take a year for its deliberations, and will not make any recommendations before the Bill is voted on at Holyrood. But if it is passed ministers intend that the abolition of corroboration will not come in until 2015-16.
Lord Bonomy's reference group will consider a range of issues, including the admissibility and use of evidence from confessions, the size of juries and the majority required for a guilty verdict, and whether judges should be able to remove a case from a jury if it is felt no reasonable jury would be able to convict on the basis of the evidence.
Bruce Beveridge, president of the Law Society of Scotland, said: "We endorse the majority view of the Justice Committee that the case to abolish the requirement for corroboration has not been made and fully support the recommendation in its Stage 1 report to remove the provisions to abolish the requirement for corroboration from the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill until there has been a further review.
"To leave the detail of this most controversial and fundamental change to the rules of evidence governing our criminal law to subsequent subordinate legislation, is simply not the right approach.
"We retain the view that if the Scottish Government remains intent on abolishing the requirement for corroboration, this should take place only after there has been a thorough independent review, to explore fully the interconnections of the corroboration requirement with all other aspects of the criminal justice system, which have not so far been examined.
"The society would strongly support and participate in such a review."
Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokeswoman Alison McInnes said: "The committee has sent the strongest possible message to the Justice Secretary. These jumbled and half-baked ideas on corroboration can have no place on the statute books.
"The Justice Secretary has been stumbling around in the face of widespread opposition from Scotland's top judges, legal bodies, opposition parties and human rights organisations.
"He now needs to heed the committee's recommendations and remove this section from the Bill."
Police Scotland Deputy Chief Constable Iain Livingstone said: "We welcome the appointment of Lord Bonomy to oversee the reference group and look forward to contributing to the work of the group.
"We support the Scottish Government's proposal regarding corroboration and believe it will further encourage people to come forward and report crime, increasing public confidence and improving access to justice for victims.
"We note the report from the Justice Committee."
SNP MSP Sandra White, who sits on Holyrood's Justice Committee, and the Scottish Conservatives' justice spokesperson Margaret Mitchell, debated the issue on Thursday's edition of Scotland Tonight.