Protecting children and other vulnerable witnesses of crime
The lead up to a trial and the court process itself, particularly lengthy cross-examinations, are often stressful and traumatic for children and vulnerable witnesses.
As the largest charity supporting people affected by crime across Scotland, that’s something we’re well aware of through our day-to-day work.
However, the measures currently in place do not adequately protect children and other vulnerable witnesses.
This issue is currently being looked at by the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee, with various proposed changes in the law to make the evidence gathering and trial process more streamlined and less traumatic for these groups.
Our contribution to the Bill supports the following:
- the presumption that evidence should be taken before the criminal trial;
- the use of ground rules hearings*, including where a child’s evidence is to be pre-recorded;
- the ground rule hearing being held as soon as possible – allowing adequate time for preparation for all parties involved;
- appreciating the need to have transitional arrangements for moving to pre-recorded evidence for child witnesses, focussing initially on younger child witnesses and complainers, and on serious crimes.
We want the legislation to be a success and understand the need to change law and practice in a manageable way, recognising the complexities, resourcing, and culture shifts required within the Criminal Justice sector and the need for a phased approach.
Looking further ahead, we would like to see evidence statements collected as soon as possible after the crime has been reported via a Joint Investigative Interview. We’re reassured to see this proposal in the Bill, as stress and time have been shown to decrease recall, especially in child and vulnerable witnesses. We believe a properly conducted witness interview before a trial will be far more helpful to justice than a belated appearance at court.
We’re also open to discussions on our role with children’s proof hearing procedures and what role intermediaries might play – particularly on physical and learning disabilities and how that fits with the overarching aim of making the justice sector fit for all victims and witnesses of crime.
You can read our full response to The Vulnerable Witnesses (Criminal Evidence) (Scotland) Bill here.
*The ground rules hearings will be used to prepare for taking a vulnerable witness’s evidence by a commissioner. It may be a separate hearing or part of another hearing such as preliminary hearing.