Abolition of Corroboration: where is the case?

Last night Cabinet Secretary for Justice Kenney MacAskill MSP was on Scotland Tonight defending his plan to abolish Corroboration.  His arguments, as ever, simply do not stack up to scruity.

Right at the outset of his interview he said:

 “We’re not going to have people convicted on one single evidence from one single witness.  That’s been made quite clear by the Lord Advocate; there will always require to be additional evidence.  That’s been made clear it’s not just a quantitative, but a qualitative test so the evidence of one person on its own will not be sufficient; there will require to be additional evidence to be led”.

This all sounds very good, the lawyers are screaming about innocent people being convicted on the evidence of one individual but the Cabinet Secretary has said they’re wrong.  Well, it’s the Cabinet Secretary that is wrong.  Under the Law of Scotland as it stands today, the essential facts of the case (those are that a crime was committed and that it was committed by the accused) need to be proved by corroborated evidence.  That is each piece of evidence that goes towards establishing those two key things must be supported by another source of evidence independent to it.  For example, that could be the evidence of an eye witness together with DNA evidence.  What the Cabinet Secretary said last night is that the Lord Advocate, the person responsible for the prosecution of all crime in Scotland, will continue to require evidence from an additional source.  However, that will be nothing more than guidance to prosecutors with no legal standing at all; it could not be founded upon in the Appeal Court as part of an appeal against conviction to show that there was insufficient evidence to allow a conviction; there would be no legal requirement for corroboration following its abolition.  If the Crown were to decide to progress a case without corroborating evidence, they would be entitled to do so.  Furthermore, the guidance of the Lord Advocate would be subject to change at the whim of the Lord Advocate without any consideration or scrutiny by anyone.  The Cabinet Secretary’s assurances are meaningless and the Lord Advocate’s requirements are meaningless in law as well.

The Cabinet Secretary went on to discuss the safeguards that his Bill contains to address the loss of Corroboration as a safeguard.  The only safeguard mentioned was the increase of the jury majority required for a conviction from 8 to 10.  Is this really an adequate safeguard?  The requirement for corroboration applies in all cases: summary and solemn cases.  Juries are only present in Solemn cases and those cases represent a significant minority of cases which are progressed by the Procurator Fiscal in Scotland.  How does increasing the jury majority safeguard those who are prosecuted before a Justice of the Peace, a stipendiary magistrate or a Sheriff on his own?  It doesn’t.  Therefore, it’s not an adequate alternative to the requirement for Corroboration.

Furthermore, on the question of jury majorities, the Scotland Tonight presenter compared the size of the Scottish majority to that required in England where ordinarily a unanimous verdict is required, but can be reduced upon the discretion of the judge to a 10-2 majority (i.e 83.33% of the jury require to be convinced beyond reasonable doubt of a person’s guilt before conviction).  Under the Scottish Government’s proposals, only 66.66% of the jury would require to be convinced of the accused’s guilt before a conviction.

The Cabinet Secretary made much of the requirement of corroboration being archaic and pointed to advanced in evidence such as DNA as forms of evidence that make corroboration redundant.  I will look specifically at DNA evidence; I feel that too much emphasis is placed on DNA evidence in our modern justice system.  A lot of DNA evidence is not conclusive.  A cigarette but at the scene of a murder with the DNA of the accused on it is not conclusive that the accused was even at the scene of the murder, let alone was there when the murder took place.  The cigarette but could have arrived there by other, innocuous means (that is not necessarily placed there deliberately as part of a “fit up”).  If the scene of the crime was at the bottom of a hill the cigarette but could have been discarded at the top of the hill some hours before the murder and  arrived at the scene of murder through the effect of gravity.  An item of clothing left at the scene of a Housebreaking accidently by the offender containing the DNA of the accused might not be conclusive either.  Consider the situation where two people have similar, or identical, pieces of clothing.  The innocent accused picks up the offenders by accident when they were earlier in the same public place while the offender picks up the innocent accused’s and subsequently leaves the item of clothing at the scene of the crime.  Again, not part of a “fit-up” and an entirely plausible situation that could occur.  In almost all cases; DNA evidence will require corroboration to give it the effect that it needs to have to secure conviction.

If we do away with the requirement for corroboration, it will be up to the jury to make an almost impossible determination as to how the DNA evidence arrived at the scene of the crime.  Programmes such as CSI have skewed society’s view of DNA evidence and resulted in it being considered the “golden bullet” it so often is not (“he must have done it; his DNA was there”).  It is entirely possible that innocent people will be convicted as a consequence of uncorroborated DNA evidence.

The Rational of the requirement for Corroboration that stands today was set out by Barron David Hume, one of Scotland’s “institutional writes” in the following way:

No matter how trivial the offence, and how high so ever the credit and character of the witness, still our law is averse to rely on his single word, in any inquiry which may affect the person, liberty, or fame of his neighbour; and rather than run the risk of such an error, a risk which does not hold when there is a concurrence of testimonies, it is willing that the guilty should escape.

The words of Barron Hume are as true today as they were when he wrote them in the early 19th Century.  It cannot be the genuine desire of the Scottish public to see innocent people convicted for crimes that they did not commit simply because one convincing witness said in court that the accused was guilty of the crime.

The fact is that Corroboration does not hinder prosecutions; it helps prosecutions (and this is a view shared by many within the prosecution service).  If the statement of a witness is supported independently by other evidence it strengthens the testimony of the witness; a witness who might otherwise come across as unbelievable is instantly strengthened by the existence of corroborative evidence.

The Scottish Government has not, in my view, made out the case for such a substantial change to the Criminal law of Scotland.  If we are going to make such a fundamental change it would be useful to do so following a thorough consideration of the issues, perhaps by the Scottish Law Commission.  Lord Carloway’s review was brief and followed what the Scottish Government describe as an “Emergency situation”.  There is something quite ironic about the Government proposing to change the law of Evidence with little or no relevant evidence.

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