Vulnerable Witnesses Conference
Victim Support Scotland was one of many attendees from the criminal justice and third sectors at the Treatment of Vulnerable Witnesses in Scotland conference, hosted by the Faculty of Advocates on 17th-18th June. Speakers included the new Lord Advocate, James Wolffe QC, the Lord Justice General, Lord Carloway, and legal and academic experts from across the UK.
One key topic was the use of intermediaries in England and Wales, in which communication experts assist and enable young and vulnerable witnesses to understand and be understood when giving evidence or statements in the criminal justice system. Intermediaries have been in place in England and Wales as a special measure to help vulnerable witnesses to give evidence for almost 10 years. Their role is to assess the witness’s communication needs; give advice to the police, prosecution and the court on how best to communicate with the witness; and help with pre-trial preparation, such as a court familiarisation visit.
After thought-provoking presentations and discussions, it was clear that there is huge appetite for intermediaries to be introduced into the Scottish system, as this would reduce the trauma on child and vulnerable witnesses, and enable many more individuals to participate effectively in the system. VSS is excited about the future possibilities in the use of intermediaries in Scotland.
Another theme of the conference was the type of questioning used by lawyers in court. It was recognised that the traditional method of questioning confuses witnesses and should be replaced with simple, clear and easy to understand questions. Discussions centred around the practices in England, where questions are put forward in advance and agreed on by both the defence and the prosecution, with direction from the judge.
The conference was closely linked to the Evidence and Procedure Review by the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service (SCTS) which suggested that the Scottish criminal justice system should make use of technology and good practice from other countries to improve the way evidence is taken from vulnerable witnesses. The SCTS has now been asked by the Justice Board to lead the work on the Next Steps; third sector organisations who support vulnerable witnesses, all the public justice agencies, the Law Society and the Faculty of Advocates will come together to look at what should be done to improve the treatment of vulnerable witnesses in Scotland. Victim Support Scotland is very much looking forward to contributing to this work, as this will provide the opportunity to address many of the issues highlighted in our Manifesto.