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Saving Corroboration: Social media reins in MacAskill

April 24, 2014 8:44 am by: EditorCategory: #SaveCorroborationFeaturesNewsScots Legal News Leave a comment A+ / A-

Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill announced that he will delay the passage of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill removing the requirement of two pieces of corroborated evidence to obtain a criminal conviction until a review being led by Lord Bonomy reports back next spring.

Abolition of Corroboration- the campaign to stop it

I WOULD like to romanticize the movement to save corroboration that took over social media for a few months last year by thinking that it started in a cigar filled room filled with Scotland’s most powerful men and women in the legal profession standing united for once against the plans to end one of the most time honoured concepts in the legal profession. It did not start that way at all. Truth be told, I rolled out of bed and asked, “What am I going to do today?” Over the previous few weeks, I had heard almost uniform grumbling from vocal members of the legal profession, but nothing significant had developed; the mainstream press were not going to touch the story. “We just don’t understand it”, one mainstream journalist opined. “I simply do not understand why criminal lawyers would not want 2000 more cases to defend.”

If it was only that simple! I guess they are not money grabbing leeches after all.

The decision was made to turn the FIRM into the outlet for voices of reason to stop Mr MacAskill from running rampant over the criminal justice system. The emails were sent; the phone calls were made, the requests were sent. Tell Scotland why we need to save corroboration.

We need a Hashtag

Any social media movement needs a hashtag. It is one of the intricacies of modern life. People need something to rally behind. My initial concern was that the #SaveCorroboration hashtag was going to take up too much space – we needed something snazzier and the character limits on tweets would be affected by 16 letter hashtag. It’s too long. Unable to think of anything shorter, the FIRM tweeted #SaveCorroboration the first time and almost instantly it caught on. The movement had started. There were not any power meetings; there were not any secret memos or encrypted plans. It was all down to social media.

We opened the FIRM website to let opinions flow; new editor and all that jazz. And flow they did. All of a sudden the FIRM was filled with passionate discourse about what Kenny was doing wrong, and how removing the corroboration requirement could destroy lives; how the whole criminal justice system was being undermined from the inside out by the Justice Minister cow-towing to special interest groups and to Police Scotland. The initial reaction was strong. I estimate the profession poured 30,000 words into the FIRM over the next week. People finally had something to say, and say it they did. The support for the movement was strong. A #SaveCorroboration page was setup on Facebook, and all of a sudden a little legal magazine was empowering the mainstream media that didn’t want to touch the story to report it coherently. The hashtag #SaveCorroboration took off. While the COPFS were making public statements supporting MacAskill’s plans, at ground level, several PFs in the Courts were encouraging us to proceed as planned. Several Sheriffs commended the FIRM for raising the issue and saying what they all wanted to say.

I don’t know if MacAskill knew what was going to hit him. There was a vocal and eloquent opposition destroying the arguments he repeatedly made while making the media rounds. His catchphrase – “The case for removing corroboration has been made” became a laughing stock in the Twitter community and his continued appearances led to ridicule from almost all quarters of Scottish society:

“The case for removing corroboration is made: the Justice Minister does not know what it is. And he does not need corroboration to show that” was a favourite.

“This is not an referendum issue”

At the height of the debate, accusations went around Twitter that the #SaveCorroboration movement was a front for the #BetterTogether campaign.

These were quickly ridiculed by Pro Independence activist and Criminal Law Solicitor Aamer Anwar who had contributed three lengthy pieces as to why keeping corroboration was important: Removing the cornerstone of Scots Criminal Law needs to be balances against other miscarriages of justice. Slow down! Today he sounded a bit relieved that the plan had been put on hold.

“I welcome the U-turn. It was unedifying for the Government to try and push through the abolition when Lord Bonomy’s review had not even reported. Despite the majority of the legal profession being against abolition the Justice Minister went ahead with his bill.
I believe this was the biggest policy disaster by the successful Scottish Government to date. Our profession has grown tired of being insulted and treated as self-obsessed children, the reality is the opposite, if we really are ambulance chasers then it would have made more sense for us to support the abolition of corroboration, after all it would have increased the number of cases prosecuted.

The fact that we did not is because we believe that unless real safeguards are built into the alternative system then miscarriages of justice would increase on a massive scale with abolition. The Scottish Government appears to have listened to concerns but unless they implement Lord Bonomy’s recommendations then it will not just be a missed opportunity but destroy our system of justice as we know it.”

Solicitor Advocate John Scott QC added:

“The decision to delay passage of the criminal Justice Bill is very welcome. The case for abolishing corroboration has still not been convincingly made.To complete the logic of this latest decision the CSJ should expand the terms of reference of Lord Bonomy’s review to include consideration of corroboration along with the whole question of what safeguards our system needs to allow us to avoid miscarriages of justice in the 21st century. A proper review in this matter should have no preconceived outcomes.”

The FIRM blogger, @IdealCynic, a vocal critic of MacAskill wrote a piece aptly titled, “Oh my God, they killed corroboration! You bastards!” in the early doors of the #SaveCorroboration movement added:

“I’m delighted that Kenny MacAskill has pulled back from the divisive way he ended the Criminal Justice Bill Stage 1 debate. It is right that The Lord Bonomy review should go ahead and allow it to come up with proper safeguards prior to abolishing corroboration. Though I still feel the scope of this review is tarnished somewhat, by ruling corroboration out of the recommendations entirely.

However, I still feel the way that Mr MacAskill has comported himself throughout this debate does his position a great disservice and I feel that a new Justice Secretary should be appointed to carry on this work. One not tarnished by the shameful way the Stage 1 debate concluded. Perhaps then, all sides in this debate can reach a consensus on the way forward, without being played off against each other; as we all want to see justice being served. I do, however, commend Kenny MacAskill for recognising his error in trying to push this Bill through prior to the Lord Bonomy review.”

Now we wait and hear what the Lord Bonomy review will offer and the FIRM will continue to assure that voices will be heard about the “rights” of one group trumping the other in order to score political points among special interest groups and certain arms of the State. This is partly down to the attention that the movement has gotten from outside of the profession. A well-attended debate hosted by the Law Society at the University of Strathclyde featuring legal blogger Andrew Tickell, Solicitor Advocate John Scott QC, and Victim Support Scotland Policy Officer Nicola Merrin and moderated by the Editor of the FIRM on the removal of corroboration resulted in an overwhelming response in favour of keeping the rule. When law students take to social media to make the case for keeping corroboration, then it is easy to understand the power of social media.

Trainee solicitor Callum Hiller, whose article started off the #SaveCorroboration campaign, sounded optimistic and concerned at the same time:

“I’m glad to hear that the plans to scrap corroboration have been put on hold. It might and probably will still go but it’ll be after a proper consideration of the alternative safeguards that can be put in place to guard against miscarriages of justice. In my view that’s the only possible approach to such an important matter and it’s concerning that it taken so long for certain people to realise that. What is now critical is that people maintain an interest in this issue to ensure that the important part of the process receives the same passionate and determined input as the #SaveCorroboration campaign.”

Advocate Niall McCluskey added: “The approach of the SNP hitherto on this issue has been extremely reckless. Parliament was being asked to pass legislation before Lord Bonomy’s review on additional safeguards had been completed. Parliament needs to consider all the implications before sensible balanced legislation can be passed. The Justice secretary has stepped back from the brink of a move which could have a catastrophic effect on Scottish justice if not balanced by appropriate safeguards.”

The articles in the #SaveCorroboration campaign can be found here.