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Corroboration law denies justice to victims, Kenny MacAskill claims

Kenny MacAskill insisted the centuries-old requirement was a 'legal barrier' to prosecutions.

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Scotland's corroboration laws mean that "possibly thousands of victims" a year are denied the chance to seek justice in the courts, Kenny MacAskill has said.

The Justice Secretary insisted the centuries-old requirement was a "legal barrier which stands in the way of too many cases going forward to court" when there would be prosecutions in other countries.

Scrapping the "complex" legal rule, which means evidence against a person in a criminal case must come from more than one source , is "vital", he added.

Mr MacAskill spoke out on the issue the day before a key vote on the proposal, which is included in the Scottish Government's Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill.

Plans to abolish corroboration have been welcomed by the police, victims' groups and prosecutors, with some arguing that removing the need for corroboration will make it easier to take cases of sexual assault and domestic abuse to court.

The Crown Office found that in 2012-13 there were 2210 domestic abuse cases which could not be prosecuted because of insufficient admissible evidence.

But there has been fierce opposition from parliament and from within the legal profession to the abolition of corroboration.

The Scottish Greens said they would back an opposition amendment to remove the abolition of corroboration from the Bill.

Patrick Harvie, Green MSP for Glasgow and justice spokesperson for the Scottish Greens, said: "We have real concerns about the removal of corroboration. There is a problem with low levels of reporting and conviction for serious offences such as rape but the Government is proposing the wholesale removal of the corroboration rule in all cases.

"I have met with the Justice Secretary to discuss the issue but remain of the view that ministers need to rethink their proposal while the Bill is at this early stage. Even Mr MacAskill accepts that a new system of safeguards will be needed, but he doesn't yet know what the detail will be.

"It can't be right to approve this dramatic change to the whole justice system on the promise that something else will be developed to replace it later. The Scottish Government is asking us to put the cart before the horse. It's not a responsible way to legislate."

The Justice Secretary has already announced a special group is being set up, chaired by former High Court judge Lord Bonomy, to consider what safeguards would be needed if the change is passed.

The Scottish Parliament will debate the general principles of the Bill on Thursday, with Mr MacAskill hailing the legislation as a "package of significant reforms to modernise our criminal justice system".

He added: "The Bill includes the proposal to abolish the corroboration requirement and remove a legal barrier which stands in the way of too many cases going forward to court, cases that would proceed elsewhere.

"No other comparable criminal justice system, including all the 47 states that are signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), operates a general requirement for corroboration.

"This means that Scotland's legal system, as it currently stands, is denying access to justice to possibly thousands of victims a year."

The Justice Secretary was visiting the ASSIST organisation in Glasgow, which helps victims of domestic abuse.

Mr MacAskill praised the group for "doing great work to improve support to the victims of domestic abuse while also working with Police Scotland and the domestic abuse court to ensure that the evil perpetrators of such crimes are caught and made to face the consequences of their actions".

He added: "The fact remains that until the requirement for corroboration is abolished too many domestic abuse cases and other crimes committed behind closed doors will be prevented from proceeding to court - denying victims their opportunity to have their day in court and access to justice.

"We have a duty to provide an effective justice system to these victims, indeed all citizens, not just those whose cases happen to meet complex corroboration rules.

"That is why it is vital for our reforms to go ahead, with the appropriate safeguards which will be examined through Lord Bonomy's group."

Mhairi McGowan, head of service at ASSIST, said: "The current justice system is failing victims. Credible allegations are being made, yet with the system based on corroboration there is not the opportunity to test those allegations in court.

"The criteria for prosecution should be the quality of evidence available. We see clients confused and despondent, and we have a duty to answer their criticisms."

The SNP-led justice committee of the Scottish Parliament criticised the proposal earlier in February.

Christine Grahame, convener of the committee and an SNP MSP said at the time: "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."

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