28 September 2013

Corroboration: will you or nil you?

Polarisation does silly things to debates.  Black and white, all good or all bad, disagreements organised around extremes rarely do justice to the grey shades, the advantages and disadvantages, which characterise almost every innovation or reform. So it is proving with the discussion around the Scottish Government's intention to abolish the corroboration rule in Scottish criminal cases.  

Unlike most Scots lawyers, who seem inveterately opposed to the idea, I find myself swithering, undecided, about it.  This indecision isn't particularly down to a sense of loyalty to the origins of these reforms. A partisan Nat I may be, but I've grumbled many a grumble about the SNP's approach to a number of big-ticket criminal justice issues over the years.  In this case, my wavers are down to the to-and-fro of the arguments which have been offered on either side of the debate.  The justifications offered by the doctrine's detractors and defenders all seem to me to overstate their case.

It's about access to justice, stupid.  In Holyrood this week, Kenny MacAskill described the proposal as  "a long overdue step in ensuring that victims have access to justice". There's certainly some force in this argument. Today, as a result of the corroboration rule, a number of cases can never be put before our courts.  Achieving corroboration of the essential elements of an offence can be particularly difficult, even impossible, where events take place in private. Perhaps most difficult of all are sexual assaults.  

On one extreme version of the case for reform, you'd think that the abolition of corroboration will, of itself, herald a new age in criminal justice. Victims, previously abandoned outside of our courts, will all be welcomed in, their testimony examined, considered, and a verdict reached.  Realistically, though, this is a fantasy, or a very distant aspiration. 

Our prosecution system is rammed. Our courts are rammed. Our prisons are rammed.  If some proponents of corroboration were to be believed, you'd think Scotland was full of idle procurators fiscal, flush with underspent budgets, lunching sheriffs taking the afternoon off for want of criminal business, and empty jail cells. None of these visions remotely approach the reality, and simply doing away with corroboration won't make them true.  

Eliminating corroboration may eliminate one set of hurdles facing complainers' access to courts, but realistically, there will still have to be hurdles. Most likely, the untransparent exercise of prosecutorial discretion to decide which cases are put before the courts. This argument doesn't necessarily favour abolition or retention. Better, you might think, to take decisions on bringing cases before the Court on a qualitative rather than a quantitative basis.  Nevertheless, the idea that this measure will "ensure that victims have access to justice" as MacAskill suggests elides the many barriers which exist, and probably have to exist, if our creaking, overloaded criminal justice system isn't to collapse under the overwhelming pressure. 

If parliamentarians and pressure groups, supporting this measure, are to give any substance to their rhetoric about access to justice, they should be asking Kenny about what funding concessions he was won from John Swinney to fund the necessary expansions in the court, prison, prosecution and legal aid budgets, so that accused persons may be properly defended. The idea that these aspirations can be met out of existing budgets deserves a black laugh.  Absent hard cash, it's hot air, amounting to a false prospectus for eliminating corroboration.

No person should ever been convicted on the evidence of just one person.  Superficially, I can see the force of this argument. How can reasonable doubt be dispelled, when the case essentially comes down to the believability of one witness, over another?  The problem is, Scots law already does this in a number of ways. Today, courts recognise the "special" self-corroborating confession, first recognised in the case of serial-killer Peter Manuel, hanged in Barlinnie 1958.

In rape cases, our criminal courts have held that the complainer's distress can corroborate the absence of consent. But this isn't corroboration in the ordinary sense of two independent pieces of evidence capable of pointing to the commission of the offence.  Assuming there's no other evidence in the case, both pieces of evidence regarding consent originate with the complainer, and corroboration in the ordinary sense is essentially dispensed with.

The Moorov doctrine performs a similar task.  First established in 1930, in Moorov the High Court held that a series of offences showing an underlying similarities may be treated as mutually corroborating. The doctrine has been allowed prosecutions to take place against people who commit a series of sexual offences against different children.  I didn't sit through the trial, but Moorov almost certainly played a role in the recent prosecution of Bill Walker for domestic abuse, with one wife's testimony about Walker's behaviour being taken to corroborate the evidence of another where there was no other evidence that the crime took place.  

Moorov employs a totally different idea of corroboration to that which is normally required.  In the absence of any other evidence, proof that John assaulted Jack is taken to corroborate the fact that John assaulted Jeremy. This produces potentially perverse results. On account of Moorov, if John assaults Jack and Jeremy, he may be brought to court, prosecuted and jailed. If, he only attacked Jeremy, the case is unlikely to see the inside of a court on the basis of the lack of corroboration, despite the fact that Jeremy's evidence about what John did to him would be identical in both cases.  

If it is never appropriate for an individual to be convicted on the word of one person, where are the objections to the application of the Moorov doctrine? Or to the idea that an allegation of rape is capable of being corroborated by distress? If we're serious about the absolute necessity of corroboration, we would expect to hear calls for Walker to be freed from jail. On the other hand, if convicting people on the basis of evidence from a single source is sometimes justified, as even many Scots lawyers would accept, then the case against abolishing corroboration isn't what it appears - and claims - to be.

Closely related to this argument is another familiar line from the anti-reform camp: But corroboration protects us from miscarriages of justice.  But does it really? Here, it is important to bear in mind what corroboration actually requires.  Usually, folk talk about "the evidence of two witnesses", conjuring up the image of credible twin wifies, testifying that they saw wee Jimmy making off with the stolen pie down Perth high street. Certainly, this is one way for prosecutors to achieve corroboration, but it is by no means the only way of doing so.  

Importantly, the courts have held that corroborating evidence needn't necessarily be incriminatory, it only needs to be capable of bearing the inference that the man in the dock committed the offence. To corroborate, the evidence needs only be consistent with the witness' tale. It might also be capable of an innocent explanation.  In effect, there are cases being tried in our criminal courts where deciding whether or not to convict or acquit the accused hinges - almost entirely - on the credibility of the complainer, thinly supported by additional evidence which might be equally consistent with the accused's innocence.  

Quite apart from being a powerful shield behind which accused persons can huddle, corroboration can represent a pretty thin defence against state power when you are dragged before the court. This isn't necessarily a reason to keep or to dispense with the doctrine either, but it does chip away at the retentionists' most powerful, and most repeated, argument.

But back to the abolitionists: Fear not. We're introducing new safeguards. Well, up to a point Lord Copper.  MacAskill has proposed to increase the jury majority required to convict from a bare majority of eight of fifteen, to ten of fifteen. Problem solved? Well, not really. Although juries loom large in the public imagination, they loom small in terms of the day to day realities of criminal justice in Scotland.  Juryless Justice of the Peace and Sheriff Courts soak up over 90% of criminal trials. Amended jury rules introduce no additional safeguards in these cases. 

Swithering yet? There are plenty of other arguments which could be made on body sides of this debate. In private, some procurators fiscal will argue that it is easier for complainers to be told that their cases can't be pursued because of a lack of corroboration, as opposed to informing them that prosecutors won't pursue the case because they lack credibility and haven't been believed.  Is there any truth to this? Perhaps.

Abolishing corroboration won't necessarily end the practise that Scottish police officers patrol in pairs. But in our penny-pinching times, does its abolition make it more likely that Police Scotland will revise its practises before long, leaving more officers to tread the beat alone? Almost certainly. Is this a good thing? Perhaps not.

And thus, I swither on, but for criven's sake, let's ditch the zero-sum mentality.


  1. I have never understood why it is thought necessary to proceed with a blanket abolition of corroboration to deal with what, if it is a problem at all, is a problem affecting a very small number of cases.

    As you say, lack of patent corroboration, is not nearly as much of an issue as is maintained in some quarters because of corroboration by distress; special knowledge confessions and the creative use of Moorov, on which last point specialist police and prosecutors are now quite proactive.

    That there remain a small number of post Cadder cases where the accused, by exercising their right to remain silent, leaves a single but credible complainer out on a limb might argue for a change but a change relating to these cases alone.

    There is precedent for that. For many years before the blanket abolition of corroboration in civil cases, corroboration was not required in personal injury actions where the only possible witness was the victim of an accident. It seems to me that this could usefully be extended to sexual offences alone.

    These offences are also much more likely to be tried before a jury and certainly never in a JP Court.

    As you say, the real fear is that someone could be convicted of a crime on the word of one other person with their guilt being determined by a single judge. In the JP Courts not even a legally qualified judge.

    In England that problem is dealt with by the accused having the right to elect for a trial by jury but in Scotland the forum is entirely in the hands of the Crown with no suggestion in the legislation that this might be changed.

    The final point however cant be over-emphasised. How much good will abolishing corroboration actually achieve in relation to the small number of sexual offences at which it is, allegedly, directed?

    Where there is a jury and literally nothing more than one persons word against another, and the position of the accused is remotely credible, does that not surely mean that there would always be a reasonable doubt? We might see more prosecutions but I doubt we'll see more convictions.

    1. Thanks for adding that, Ian.

      You make several important points. Firstly, I think many folk who favour abolition could be persuaded that only partial abolition was necessary. There are clearly some circumstances where cases can't be brought to court which should be brought to court, to my mind, under the current dispensation. A narrower repeal measure could address those questions. On your last point: I tend to agree. A weak case doesn't become a strong case, simply by being put before a jury. I can't imagine anything worse than sitting in a jury, deciding whether A sexually assaulted B, when both parties seemed tolerably credible in their evidence. It is certainly a caution for those incautious folk who are arguing not simply that these reforms would lead to more sexual assault cases being prosecuted - which is at least a possibility - but that it inevitably entails a higher % of convictions. If anything, the inverse outcome seems intuitively more likely to be true.

    2. Must change from the status quo.

    3. Marvin,

      Given the SNP majority in Holyrood (despite the interesting and uncharacteristic skeptical noises from Christine Grahame), it seems very likely that corroboration is now effectively an ex procedural safeguard.