Brian Monteith: Corroboration row tells much about SNP

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It is one of those strange aspects of politics but happens so regularly it is in fact predictable, the way political parties do the reverse of what they say on the tin.

When you buy a Mars Bar you would not expect to bite into a Bounty, or suck on a lollipop – but politicians are past masters at delivering something other than what they say they will do.

The latest offender is the SNP, and in particular the Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill, with his attempt to abolish corroboration as part of the Scottish legal system.

One might expect that in voting for the SNP you would be protecting what makes Scotland Scottish – such as the distinct differences of our legal system with that of the rest of the United Kingdom – but you would be wrong.

Making Scotland more like England is the sort of behaviour the SNP might normally accuse the Scottish Tories of – but ironically the Tories are the oldest surviving political party in Scotland, and indeed the world.

They are more Scottish than, well, many SNP politicians. When sitting in the original Scottish Parliament the peers that opposed the union with England were the people who later became known as the Tories. Ironically, they now present themselves as the most devout of all the unionist parties.

No party is immune from this errant behaviour, they all betray (some would say, update) their principles at one time or another, but when some are serial offenders it does raise the question if it is worth continuing to vote for them.

The Conservatives in the 1970s under Ted Heath were one such example, nationalising many industries such as shipyards and Rolls Royce. It was no surprise that Conservative supporters lost faith with Heath but rediscovered their spleen when led by Margaret Thatcher, who had a habit of doing what she said she would.

Some aspects of Scots law are different: there’s the third available verdict of “not proven” that has often been suggested as ripe for abolition; there’s the different courts such as the sheriff court compared to the magistrates’ court and crown court down south; the age of legal capacity is 16 in Scotland compared to 18 in England and Wales; there are 15 members of a Scottish jury that only require a majority verdict compared to 12 elsewhere; and there is the need in most situations for corroborating evidence – that means at least two different and independent sources of evidence to bring forward a prosecution.

The SNP Justice Secretary is keen to remove corroboration, especially as it is seen as a barrier to achieving a higher conviction rate for rape and other sexual offences where there are no witnesses. He has himself had to concede, however, that it will be no panacea as other countries without corroboration can also have low conviction rates for rape.

Indeed, an international study found that despite the fact England – with no corroboration required – has a better conviction rate than Scotland it still has a higher number of rapes per 100,000 people. The better conviction rate does not seem to deter the number of rapes. Out of 34 countries reviewed, England was the fifth highest – Scotland came 12th (Sweden was second and Norway tenth).

While a third of Scotland’s rape cases that reach court result in a conviction, the corroboration rule is thought to contribute to only a tenth of rape cases going to court – meaning the conviction rate for all cases is only three per cent.

The conviction rate has recently improved – to almost half of all cases reaching court – but the main impediment to improving the conviction rate remains getting the case to court in the first place.

This low conviction rate is also believed to discourage women from bringing their cases of rape to the attention of police – making the statistics even more worrying.

While there is an understandable focus on improving the prosecution of rape cases, the move to abolish corroboration has provoked a storm by many others in the legal system who believe it will result in far more unsafe prosecutions across other crimes – miscarriages of justice to you and me.

Lords Hamilton and Cullen – two of Scotland’s former senior judges – stated their opposition to the reform this week, while Lord Hope and Lord Gill have done the same – the former describing the change as “quite dangerous”.

Lord Hope pointed out that with abolition of corroboration a conviction could in future be obtained solely from a confession illegally extracted by the police – with no other evidence.

It is beyond irony that this particular aspect of Scots law that has been trumpeted in the past as making Scottish convictions safer than those in other countries, including in England and Wales, is now being removed by the SNP.

It won’t be the first time the SNP has proposed such anglicisation of course, from supporting the end of the old Scottish spirit measures (to encourage us to drink less) to the threat that will come to Scottish banknotes from independence (we’ll all be using only English notes) the SNP is the same as any other party.

They’ll be coming for deep-fried Mars Bars next.