New facility for children and vulnerable witnesses

The Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service (SCTS) is creating new, state of the art facilities to allow children and vulnerable witnesses to give their evidence in criminal trials and to participate in tribunal hearings within a safe, sensitive and secure environment.

7 November, 2018

With funding support from the Scottish Government, the creation of a new child and vulnerable witness-friendly hearings suite in Glasgow is underway, with scope to create similar suites in three other cities across Scotland. You can read more about the announcement on the Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service website.

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 don’t adequately protect children and other vulnerable witnesses.

As we wrote about recently, this issue is currently being looked at by the Scottish Parliament, with various proposed changes in the law to make the evidence gathering and trial process less difficult for these groups.

In our contribution to this debate, we support:
• 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 in the process, allowing adequate time is required for preparation for all parties involved;
• having transitional arrangements for moving to pre-recorded evidence for child witnesses, and focusing initially on younger child witnesses and complainers, and on serious crimes.

Director of Operations, Alan McCloskey, said: “Victim Support Scotland has long supported children and other vulnerable witnesses giving evidence as soon as possible after the crime and in a victim friendly setting as stress and time have been shown to decrease recall. We believe a properly conducted witness interview before a trial will be far more helpful to justice than a belated appearance at court.

“We are pleased that funding has gone into creating a centre in Glasgow to allow children and vulnerable witnesses to give evidence without attending court.

“However, it shouldn’t end here. For a victim centred approach to be truly effective this initiative needs to be part of wider overhaul of the justice sector which keeps in mind the Barnhaus model as the vision for Scotland going forward. A vision where all children and vulnerable witnesses have the opportunity to provide evidence in a victim friendly environment as soon as possible after an offence has taken place.

“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.”

Obviously, 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.

We look forward to hearing more on the detail and design of the proposals for the centre in Glasgow.