Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill: Stage One Debate

CJSB14Yesterday the Scottish Parliament had its Stage One debate on the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill, and the quality of the contributions from certain members was depressingly poor; some contributions are worthy of note because they were of a standard which should be seen from all members: John Finnie (IND) and Patrick Harvie (Greens) to name two.

Like many, I am of the view that corroboration does represent an important safeguard against wrongful conviction; however, I am not so wedded to the idea that I cannot see life without it. I do have a number of concerns though.

Firstly, there has been a lot of talk about cases not getting to court because of corroboration and how that limits access to justice for Complainers. There are two important factors to consider here: (1) it also limits access to justice for suspects. Even an arrest/detention (especially for something like rape) can be enough to permit a ‘bad smell’ to hang around the accused. (2) There will always be cases that do not proceed to trial because of a lack of sufficiency in the evidence. Removing the requirement for corroboration will not suddenly mean that every single case will proceed. Trials, especially High Court trials, are expensive and while justice ought not to be about money, it would be naïve to think that money doesn’t play a part – on a financial basis alone it would be impossible to have every case prosecuted.

What about this brave new world post-corroboration in Scotland? A lot has been mentioned in the debate about complainers in sexual offences and domestic violence cases; corroboration does provide assistance to these Complainers (although this point is almost never mentioned). It ensures it is never the case of the Complainer’s word against that of the accused. Where things get tricky in terms of rape complaints is around consent. There has to, as the law stands today, be corroboration of a lack of consent. Where does that come from? Lots of places: changes in behaviour by the complainer or third party evidence of the Complainer’s distress for example.  In such cases where evidence of distress is not available it would place even more stress upon the Complainer as it will be down to no more than who the jury believes more: the complainer or the accused.

Now, so far I’ve yet to deal with why I am actually against section 57. My main opposition to it passing in this Bill is the outstanding Bonomy Review.  The purpose of this is to work out the additional changes that will need to be made to the law of Scotland following the removal of the requirement for Corroboration. Let’s be clear this isn’t a minor technical change to the law of Scotland; it is absolutely fundamental. As such it is only right and proper that the Scottish Parliament knows what it is changing the law of Scotland to before they vote on such a fundamental proposal. Also, the very existence of the Bonomy review shows that the Parliament are voting on a partially thought-out proposal.  The setting up of a review to fix problems with legislative provisions, before they’ve even been voted on for the first time by the Scottish Parliament, should cause alarm bells to ring in the minds of every single Member of the Scottish Parliament.

Image credit: Scottish Parliament website licensed under the Open Scottish Parliament Licence v1.0
Image credit: Scottish Parliament website licensed under the Open Scottish Parliament Licence v1.0

During the debate yesterday Sandra White MSP made the preposterous suggestion that not abolishing the requirement for corroboration in this Bill was kicking the matter into the long grass. She was concerned that there would be insufficient time to deal with the matter before the next election, due in May 2016. The Bonomy review is due to report early next year, giving the Government and Parliament up to 15 months to draft a Bill and pass it; hardly a shortage of time!  Furthermore, the Cabinet Secretary has said he won’t be enacting section 57 until such times as additional safeguards are introduced. The reality is; it’s probably going to be at last a further 18 months before this section is actually enacted. Whether it is passed now, or in 2015 will make little difference, it’s unlikely to be fully enacted before late 2015 or early 2016 anyway. Therefore, there is no good reason as to why Parliament cannot consider the full package (i.e. abolition and the full package of safeguards together). Indeed, passing legislative provisions which Parliament knows are incomplete and not fully thought through is not what MSPs are paid for. This is not how a serious Parliament in a mature democracy ought to function.

What has struck me most about this debate is the way in which highly emotive cases have been used as the justification, and this has polarised the debate. This has lead to deplorable suggestions by some, such as Christina McKelvie MSP, that those opposing the move to abolish the requirement for corroboration were against victims of rape and domestic violence. Her exact wording was:

There is a significant number of victims of sexual violence and domestic abuse whose cases do not go to court. In the past two years, that has affected 2,800 cases of domestic abuse and 170 rape cases. The Tories, the Liberals and—astonishingly—the Labour Party might be happy with that, but I will not have that on my conscience.

Such suggestions are utterly unacceptable in Parliament by MSPs; in making that statement Ms McKelvie demeaned herself and demeaned Parliament. Quite simply it was shameful and completely indefensible behaviour.  She is not alone, some vocal people connected with various womens’ charities have been similar suggestions.

Image credit: Scottish Parliament website licensed under the Open Scottish Parliament Licence v1.0

Finally, I turn to Mr MacAskill’s equally shameful closing statement in which he painted the opposition to section 57 as a ‘Better Together’ pact against the SNP. This ignores that Christine Grahame abstained on both votes, and that Patrick Harvey and John Finnie (both ardent supporters of ‘Yes Scotland’ and the later a former SNP member) both voted for the amendment proposed by Margaret Mitchell after also speaking against the Cabinet Secretary’s position  in the debate. The Cabinet Secretary’s suggestion that everyone not with him is against Victims of crime was another outrageous slur; indeed I heard not one speech in the debate that could have been characterised as being against victims. Everyone speaking in favour of Margaret Mitchells amendment was essentially saying this: we need to ensure that we retain an acceptable balance in the justice system that ensures safe convictions. That brings us to the nub of the issue: we must ensure that when people are convicted of crimes, especially ones that will inevitably result in lengthy custodial sentences, that those convictions are safe. It is not good for a victim to see someone convicted of an offence against them just for the Appeal Court to come along and quash that conviction.

We have to ensure that balance remains in the system, and the Cabinet Secretary’s position does not allow for that. It is not acceptable for Parliament to vote on such fundamental matters when they are incomplete with only a promise that sufficient safeguards will be introduced (by way of Secondary legislation which bypasses the full and rigorous scrutiny of Parliament) in due course. The Cabinet Secretary’s position is untenable on this issue, and he must remove section 57 from the Bill re-introducing it in Primary legislation alongside whatever other reforms Lord Bonomy proposes.