Spousal Witnesses (Compellability)

Question Time — Scottish Executive — General Questions – in the Scottish Parliament at 11:40 am on 28 June 2007.

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Photo of Helen Eadie Helen Eadie Labour 11:40, 28 June 2007

To ask the Scottish Executive what plans it has to ensure the compellability of spousal witnesses during trials. (S3O-411)

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

The Executive consulted last summer on the options for reform in this area of the law but drew very few responses. Under the law as it stands, one spouse cannot be compelled to give evidence against the other spouse who is accused of a crime but can be so compelled when the offence is committed against them. The law is set out in section 264 of the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1995. I will consider the issue in more detail before deciding whether it should be included in any future legislation.

Photo of Helen Eadie Helen Eadie Labour

Does the minister agree that there is evidence of partners marrying each other simply to avoid giving evidence in some of the most serious criminal cases? If he gives the issue consideration, will he also have regard to the fact that legislation exists south of the border to compel spouses to give evidence? That is an example that we should follow.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

I am aware of the member's interest in the matter, which she has pursued with vigour. As I said in answer to her first question, I will consider the issue carefully, although I need to prioritise it along with many other competing issues. It is my view that the principal parental duty is to protect the child from harm, whatever vows someone may have taken in a church or civil ceremony and that there is therefore merit in considering the legal changes that have been implemented south of the border.

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative

Notwithstanding the genuine points that Helen Eadie makes, does the minister agree that, in general, the matter will have to be considered deeply because such legislation could bring with it more problems than it resolves?

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

Absolutely. That is one of the reasons why the previous Administration was rather despondent at the failure to receive sufficient responses. Nevertheless, this is a matter that we are happy to consider.

I agree that there could be problems if we made the spouse compellable in every situation. Also, we live in a society that is changing and we must balance this issue with other competing legislative claims. However, I have sympathy with the point that Ms Eadie makes. The primary duty of a parent is to protect their child from harm, irrespective of who has perpetrated the harm. There is something manifestly wrong and unjust when somebody marries to evade their responsibility. That is an area that we will consider. One of the options that was consulted on—as Ms Eadie correctly states—is the situation that exists south of the border. However, we do not have a blanket provision under which a spouse is not compellable, as we have opened it up to deal with domestic violence and other such matters.

We must consider how we protect our children. There is something manifestly wrong in someone seeking to evade justice by marrying the principal witness, whose principal duty should be to protect the child from harm.