Down with corroboration (I say)!

Photo by Andy T on Unsplash

Who’s ‘I’? Amanda Pinto – that’s who, but more about her later.

In Scottish criminal procedure, we place a great deal of emphasis on the principle of corroboration. In a criminal trial, the prosecutor must prove that the accused is guilty of a crime beyond  reasonable doubt. This is a very strict burden and, in Scotland, the prosecution achieves this standard by corroborating its evidence against the accused. Corroboration means that there must be at least two independent sources of evidence such as witness testimony and the use of expert and forensic evidence. Reasonable doubt is a nagging doubt which would lead a reasonable person to the conclusion that it would be unsafe and unjust to find the accused guilty.

Not every legal system places such importance on the principle of corroboration: some of our English brethren seem (very) disinclined to follow us.

This week, distaste for corroboration has been voiced somewhat forcefully by Amanda Pinto QC, the incoming Chairperson of the Bar Council of England and Wales (the English equivalent of the Faculty of Advocates). Ms Pinto represents some 16,000 barristers and her views are therefore not to be dismissed easily.

Of particular concern to Ms Pinto seems to be UK Government proposals to introduce an element of corroboration into English criminal legal practice. Speaking to Jonathan Ames of The Times (of London), her main objection to the introduction of corroboration appears to be in relation to rape trials:

We’ve rightly come away from requiring corroboration [in England and Wales],” she says. “Because if you require corroboration in something that is typically between two people, then you restrict access for justice for some victims entirely.

Several years ago in Scotland, we also had a discussion on the merits of the continued use of corroboration in criminal proceedings. Lord Carloway (now the Lord Justice General), Police Scotland and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service were of the opinion that this requirement should be abolished. Significantly, the Faculty of Advocates and the Law Society of Scotland were opposed to this development. Warnings of possible miscarriages of justice were raised if this was allowed to happen. Corroboration was retained.

Nore recently (in 2019), groups representing survivors of sexual abuse made powerful and emotional submissions to the Scottish Parliament arguing that the requirement of corroboration be abolished. We still have the principle in place in Scotland.

Responding to these submissions by abuse survivors, Brian McConnochie QC, a senior member of the Faculty of Advocates went on record defending the current evidential requirement:

I know that some people consider that corroboration is something which we ought to abandon or abolish, and as often as not the argument is given that it should be abolished because nobody else has it. I’ve never been convinced by that argument. We went through a process where it was discussed at significant and considerable length, and at the end of that process the decision was taken that it should go no further.”

James Wolffe QC, the current Lord Advocate (head of the Scottish prosecution service) has openly stated that a review of corroboration could be on the cards, but Gordon Jackson QC, current Dean of the Faculty of Advocates has voiced the Faculty’s continuing opposition to such a development:

https://www.scottishlegal.com/article/lord-advocate-hints-at-renewed-attack-on-corroboration

Related Blog Articles:

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/04/22/scrap-corroboration/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/03/01/corroboration/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/12/28/alexa-theres-been-a-murder/

Copyright – Seán J Crossan, 9 January 2020

A civil action

Photo by Mateus Campos Felipe on Unsplash

What if criminal law lets down victims (and by extension their families)? Over the past year, several of my Blogs have looked at situations where the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service have either not succeeded in prosecuting a suspect in a criminal case or have declined to do so.

In Scotland, the ability to bring a private prosecution is heavily restricted making it almost an impossible task to obtain the necessary authorisation from the High Court of Justiciary (via a Bill of Criminal Letters).

Victims (or their families) will often then have little choice but to turn civil law for some sort of resolution – usually an action for compensation.

I often emphasise to students that criminal and civil law have very different objectives: criminal law is used by the State to punish those individuals who would threaten the safety or security of the community by their actions; civil law, in this context, is primarily concerned with compensating the victims of a wrongful act.

Admittedly, certain types of conduct can be both criminal and civil in nature e.g. assault, dangerous driving, fraud and theft. This means that an individual could face the prospect of two trials. The outcome of each trial is independent of each other.

It is also worth remembering that criminal and civil law have different standards of proof. In a criminal trial, the prosecution must prove beyond reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty of a crime; in civil law, the claimant (or pursuer) must show on the balance of probabilities that the respondent (defender) was responsible for the harm caused. The civil standard of proof is therefore a lower standard of proof.

So, it was of some interest that, in the last week, two stories were widely reported in the media which highlighted the difference between the two systems.

In the first story, it was established that John Downey, a former member of the Irish Republican Army, bore responsibility for the deaths of four members of the Household Cavalry (two British Army regiments) in July 1982. An IRA active service unit had planted a car bomb in London which had caused these fatalities. Downey was a member of that unit, but he had immunity from criminal prosecution under the terms of the Belfast (or Good Friday) Agreement 1998. The families of the victims had no alternative but to raise a civil legal action in the English High Court in order to establish that Downey was an active participant in the planning and execution of the bombing. The success of this action means that the families can now pursue Downey for damages (see Sarah Jane Young v John Anthony Downey [2019] EWHC 3508 (QB)).

It is important to stress that this judgement establishes Downey’s civil liability for the deaths of the four serving members of the British armed forces; it does not establish criminal liability.

A link to the judgement of the English High Court can be found below:

https://www.judiciary.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/APPROVED-JUDGMENT-Young-v-Downey-18.12.19.pdf

The second story is from further afield and involves a female, Japanese journalist (Shiori Ito) who successfully sued a male TV journalist (Noriyuki Yamaguchi) who had raped her. This case broke many taboos in Japan because victims of rape tend not to publicise their ordeal. Again, the decision of Tokyo’s District Court establishes Yamaguchi’s civil liability for rape – not criminal liability.

In Scotland, of course, we have had two recent civil actions whereby victims of rape have successfully pursued their attackers for the right to receive compensation. It might not be the ideal solution, but in the absence of any action on the part of the State prosecution authorities, it may be the only recourse to justice that the victims have.

Links to media articles about the two cases can be found below:

https://news.sky.com/story/hyde-park-bombing-ira-member-john-downey-was-responsible-for-1982-attack-11889683

Journalist wins Japan civil rape case

Related Blog Articles:

The public interest?

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/11/12/the-public-interest/

The burden of proof

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/02/10/the-burden-of-proof/

Private prosecutions

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/05/29/private-prosecutions/

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 23 December 2019

The public interest?

Photo by Karl Bewick on Unsplash

We have an independent criminal prosecution service in Scotland headed by the Lord Advocate (a Scottish Government Minister). James Wolffe QC, the current Lord Advocate, has responsibility for the Crown Office and the Procurator Fiscal Service.

Yesterday, the role of the Lord Advocate came under intense media scrutiny as a result of the decision of the Crown Office not to prosecute several Police Scotland officers who had been accused of causing the death of a man who had been taken into custody in 2015.

The deceased was 31 year old Sheku Bayoh, who was arrested by Police officers in the Scottish town of Kirkcaldy. It was later established in a post mortem that Mr Bayoh had consumed drugs (MDNA and Flakka).

On a more sinister level, Mr Bayoh was found to have 23 different physical injuries. The Bayoh family and their solicitor (Aamer Anwar) always maintained that the actions of Police officers had caused the death and that they should face prosecution for their actions.

To the dismay of the Bayoh family, the Lord Advocate has declined to pursue criminal charges against the Police officers as this would not be in the public interest.

Today, Humza Yousaf, the Scottish Government Cabinet Secretary for Justice decided to convene a public inquiry into the circumstances of Mr Bayoh’s death – which may be some small consolation to his still grieving family.

The Bayoh family may also be considering the possibility of a civil action for compensation against the Police officers who they are alleging have responsibility for the death.

This case is a timely reminder that it is the State (or the Crown) which has the ultimate power to determine who will be prosecuted for crimes – not the victim or the family of the victim.

The possibility of the Bayoh family being granted the right to initiate a private prosecution against the Police officers is unlikely. The High Court of Justiciary must grant permission, by way of a Bill of Criminal Letters, for any private prosecution to proceed in the first place.

It should go without saying that the prosecutor in a private prosecution will still have to prove the allegations against the accused.

Two fairly recent attempts to raise private prosecutions in Scotland have been rejected out of hand by the High Court of Justiciary (see Bill for Criminal Letters by (1) John and Linda Stewart and (2) Allan and Aileen Convey Against William Payne AND (1) Matthew McQuade and Jaceline McQuade and (2) Yvonne Reilly Against Henry Clarke [2016] HCJAC 122 HCA/16-2/XM HCA/16-3/XM).

A link to the Opinion of the High Court of Justiciary in respect of these matters can be found below:

https://www.scotcourts.gov.uk/search-judgments/judgment?id=d26a25a7-8980-69d2-b500-ff0000d74aa7

The most famous, partially successful private prosecution in Scotland in was the affair which became known popularly as the Glasgow Rape Case. In 1982, a rape victim was permitted to raise a private prosecution against three of her alleged assailants (see X v Sweeney (1982) JC 70).

Prior to this legal action, there had been one, other private prosecution in Scotland during the 20th Century and that matter had been concluded as far back as 1911 (the actual Bill of Criminal Letters was granted in 1909 – see J & P Coats Ltd v Brown 1909 6 Adam 19).

A link to a story about the Lord Advocate’s decision can be found on the BBC Scotland website:

Sheku Bayoh: Family feel ‘betrayed’ over decision not to prosecute officers

His family said they felt betrayed over the decision not to bring criminal charges against police officers.

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 12 November 2019