What is Corroboration
The word “Corroboration” means “support” or “confirmation.” In the specific context of the law of evidence it relates to any rule of law or practice requiring evidence to be supported by other independent evidence, in order to be sufficient to sustain a conviction (or any other given result).
The general rule
English common law has never had any general requirement that:
- Evidence be corroborated, or
- That the tribunal of fact be warned of the danger of acting on uncorroborated evidence.
The general rule, in both civil and criminal cases, is that any judgment or conviction may be based on the uncorroborated evidence of a single witness, or on uncorroborated evidence of any other kind.
The two main categories of case where corroboration or care warnings still apply
Category 1: Where corroboration/care warning is required as a matter of law/obligatory
S.13 Perjury Act 1911 provides that a person shall not be convicted of any offence under the Act “solely upon the evidence of one witness as to falsity of any statement alleged to be false.”
Under the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984, s.89 a person charged with an offence of exceeding the speed limit cannot be convicted solely on the opinion evidence of a single witness.
S. 77 PACE 1984
This section concerns cases involving confessions by a mentally handicapped person in situations where the case is not withdrawn from the jury by the judge, and where the confession is admitted in evidence (the case must depend wholly or substantially on the confession, which was not made in the presence of an independent witness). Section 77 PACE 1984 imposes a duty on the court, in certain circumstances, to warn the tribunal of fact of the dangers of convicting such a person in reliance on his confession.
These are extremely important types of cases where the requirement is not necessarily for strict corroboration (i.e. evidence from an independent source) but where law requires corroboration in the sense of either evidence from an independent source or an alternative type of evidence from the same source:
- Identification cases;
- Inferences drawn from the defendant’s silence;
- Confession by a mentally handicapped person.
Category 2: Discretionary care warning
The effect of s.32 CJPOA 1994 was considered by the Court of Appeal in R V Makanjuola (supra), R V Easton  1 WLR 1348. Both cases involved applications for leave to appeal against convictions for indecent assault. It was argued on behalf of both applicants that, s 32 notwithstanding, the old common law rules could not just disappear overnight. The Court of Appeal was patently unmoved by such an argument, declaring in terms that any attempt to reimpose the “straightjacket” of the old common law rules was to be deprecated.
The Court of Appeal then summarised its conclusions:
- S. 32 abrogates the requirement to give a corroboration direction in respect of an alleged accomplice or a complaint of a sexual offence, simply because a witness falls into one of those categories;
- It is a matter for the judge’s discretion, what, if any, warning is appropriate in respect of such a witness as indeed in respect of any other witness in whatever type of case;
- In some cases it may be appropriate for the judge to warn the jury to exercise caution before acting upon the unsupported evidence of a witness;
- If any question arises as to whether the judge should give a special warning in respect of a witness, it is desirable that the question be resolved by discussion with counsel, in the jury’s absence, before final speeches;
- where the judge does decide to give some warning in respect of a witness, it would be appropriate to do so as part of the judge’s review of the evidence and his comments as to how the jury should evaluate it, rather than as a set-piece legal direction;
- Where some warning is required, it is for the judge to decide the strength and terms of the warning.
Discretionary care warning
There are four categories of case concerning evidence from potentially “unreliable witnesses” which currently come within this ambit:
- Accomplice giving evidence for the Prosecution;
- Complainants in sexual cases;
- Prosecution evidence given by an inmate of a secure mental institution.