4 December 2013

Scottish Police Federation: lost and confused

You know me. I'm a generous soul, and I don't like to pick on people. But Holyrood's Justice Committee was witness yesterday to such an extraordinarily incompetent performance by the Scottish Police Federation, we shouldn't pass over it in silence.  The topic of the day was the abolition of corroboration.  If the success or failure of Kenny's proposals rested on the understanding and clarity of many of its proponents, it'd be stuffed.  
The polis put up the first panel of witnesses, three senior officers representing Police Scotland, the Scottish Police Federation and Association of Scottish Police Superintendents. As the papers cover this morning, this appearance was of interest, as two of the three bodies initially expressed qualms about abolition. Yesterday, through their Vice-President David Ross, the SPF indicated that their view had shifted.  The reasons he gave were astonishing in their incoherence. 

The official report has not yet been published, but you can watch the session here. In explaining his organisation's change of view, David Ross claimed that the Police Federation's initial concerns were based - not on any of the proposals - but a series of fantasies and anxious impressions which its membership had dreamed up, without bothering to investigate whether they had any foundation. 

Apparently, the SPF thought the Bill would move us from a criminal standard of proof - beyond reasonable doubt - to the civil standard - balance of probability. Quite how they arrived at this eccentric and baseless impression, it is difficult to say. The glaikit Mr Ross could only shrug and avow past bemusement. This is an extraordinary approach for the SPF to own up to. Invited to submit evidence in the course of the parliamentary scrutiny of legislation - on Mr Ross' evidence, the Police Federation didn't bother investigating the actual proposals, and instead, sounded off about unrelated fears and concerns. 

Perhaps anxiety tied his tongue, but Ross' evidence also showed a remarkable lack of understanding about what the corroboration rule requires at present. His opening gambit:

"I think as discussion and debate around corroboration has moved on, it has become clearer what's intended, in terms of what's taken in the Bill. And our view is now that we're talking about the requirement for every strand of evidence to be corroborated being removed, in favour of checks and balances across the whole of the evidence and safeguards. So, in truth, what our view is now, in terms of the checks and balances, other evidence supporting the evidence of an eyewitness, rather than two eyewitnesses, that kind of -" [Interrupted by the Chair]
"Our view has always been in terms of how police gather evidence and how we report evidence is by in large that's done using two police officers, two forensic scientists - and our view has always been that was unnecessary and was costly to the criminal justice system but didn't provide any great benefit to it. So, - and that was part of our response, in terms of our view on corroboration.
So we were always opposed to the blanket removal of it, in terms of - the most recent comments of the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, and, indeed, the Lord Advocate, suggest that  we're talking about checks and balances and other evidence, and safeguards.  In truth, what we're talking about is corroboration from different sources, rather than corroborating each - you know, an eyewitness's account being corroborated by another eyewitness' account, or indeed forensic evidence being corroborated by some other form of evidence."

This is, to borrow a phrase I've used before, baffling poppycock.  An incoherent mess and I marvel that a trained copper could trot it all out.  

Firstly, this is a really foolish way to talk and think about corroboration. Yesterday's session was rife with it. Corroboration is a rule of law, requiring only that the essential facts of the case - that the crime was committed and that it was the accused who committed it - are substantiated in evidence from two independent sources. Anything less than this is not corroboration.  The Criminal Justice Bill proposes that this rule be eliminated from our law, and that these essential facts can be proved in law by evidence from a single source, say by a single witness. 

For example, in a rape case, the Crown must prove that sex occurred.  In the absence of a second source of evidence - either DNA evidence or the accused's own admission - the charge will be insufficiently corroborated to take to court under the current dispensation. Having abolished corroboration, the complainer's evidence alone will be enough to make out this element of the offence. There may be other evidence supporting the allegation in general terms - evidence of distress say - but the complainer's evidence about this essential fact won't have to be supported. 

The extent of David Ross's ignorance is summed up by a quote he gave to the Scotsman, arguing that:

“It has become clearer we will still have corroboration across the whole of the evidence, but not on every individual strand. That’s from the cabinet secretary, the Lord Advocate and Solicitor General. It was a significant concern that evidence from one source would be sufficient – if corroboration was removed in its entirety. And that was a step too far.”

Sorry to break it to you Mr Ross, but if the SPF now support the legislation because they think a single witness's evidence will not be sufficient in law to bring home a conviction - you've seriously misunderstood the whole enterprise. Legally "one source would be sufficient". If you haven't realised that - michty - you've not been paying nearly enough attention.

Secondly, the corroboration rule never required, as Ross implies "every strand of evidence" to be corroborated, only the essential facts. Again, you'd think and hope he'd have a clear understanding of that, before presenting himself as an expert witness in parliament. Thirdly, corroboration was never about two eyewitnesses. I'm astonished that any senior police officer would seriously suggest otherwise.

All in all, this was thoroughly unedifying performance from a lost and confused Scottish Police Federation.


  1. ".......but a series of fantasies and anxious impressions which its membership had dreamed up, without bothering to investigate whether they had any foundation......."

    Fair enough, but as far as Morpheus inspired fantasies and anxious impressions are concerned, you have to admit, these folks compose some of the best! On balance of probability, that is.

    1. Speaking as someone whose mind has been warped by a legal education, a dream focussing on the minutiae of criminal procedure is an expression of a truly dismal, jurisprudential brain.

    2. Sweet dreams of minutiae
      Who am I to disagree
      I travel the world wi' brain dismally
      Every lawyer's non compos mentis

      Some of them want to use you.....

      You've a warp in your brain?
      How's your weft then?
      We are all warped by the nature of our school days. Is it not the nurture of our weft which redeems us in the end?
      One may judiciously thwart an unfortunate warp if one's weft is circuitously cunning and oftentimes fortified with strong drink.