The soap opera that the move to abolish the corroboration rule in Scots criminal trials has become, has seen a rush of episodes this past week.
Mr MacAskill's move to set up a further review group, now known to be under Lord Bonomy, to report on further safeguards necesssary if the rule goes (or when the rule goes, as remains the Justice Secretary's avowed intention), came too late to pre-empt a critical stage 1 report from the majority of the Justice Committee. As the committee called on the Government to provide further information ahead of the stage 1 debate, I hope parliamentary procedures permit it in turn to have the chance to provide a supplementary report ahead of the debate, to say whether that affects its conclusion. It is unsatisfactory otherwise - indeed, in any event - that such late interventions should be made in an attempt to swing the outcome.
It is also an extremely bad approach to lawmaking, in principle, to legislate for something to happen before one has decided what further provisions might be necessary to make it work. Who can say whether the review group will propose an approach on all fours with the proposed terms of the primary legislation? No doubt its terms of reference have been drawn to achieve that, but supposing it emerges from its deliberations that some alternative would be more sensible?
In proposing this further review at this stage (that must be about the third on the subject), having previously insisted that enough scrutiny had already been given to the proposal, Mr MacAskill does rather give the impression of a man trying to cling on to a window ledge that his fingertips are in danger of slipping off. Would he really lose much more face if he did the sensible thing and agreed to remove the abolition section from the bill until Lord Bonomy has reported?
It is to be noted also that Lord Bonomy has been given a year to complete his report on this issue. Lord Carloway had to carry out a much wider remit in less time, and his public consultatin lasted a mere eight weeks. Let us hope that there is more scope for a full consideration of the implications this time round.
One thing that in my view is a serious omission from this debate so far, is some research into how many convictions are actually returned on the evidence of a single witness, in comparable jurisdictions that manage without a formal rule. It is not just a case of how many more Scottish case the Crown Office think might make it to court.
Finally, on the evidence of some reported or broadcast comments, some of our MSPs could do with a proper briefing on what actually satisfies the present rule. There is a real danger that some may be misled into thinking that there will still be a need for supporting evidence such as DNA, if the primary rule goes. A job for the Law Society of Scotland there, among its many briefing papers. Everything possible must be done to help make the final decision an informed one.
(Tailpiece: Having selected the soap opera theme for this piece, I was terribly tempted to shorten its subject to "Corrie". Now wouldn't it be asking for trouble to propose to abolish that?)