Supporting victims rights in court with COPFS
As Scotland’s prosecution service, the decisions we take must be informed by the needs of victims and witnesses. Our standards set out what all victims and witnesses can expect from the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) throughout the investigation and prosecution of crime.
Our standards include ensuring that victims and witnesses have access to the relevant and appropriate information that they are entitled to and that they are given the help they need to give evidence in court.
How do we meet this standard?
Victim Information and Advice (VIA) is a service provided by COPFS which is dedicated to certain victims, witnesses and bereaved family members.
VIA’s aim is to increase victims and witnesses’ understanding and improve their experience of the criminal justice system. They do this by providing information and advice through written correspondence and/or telephone contact. VIA aim to communicate with victims and witnesses as early as possible, in a way that suits them, and on a regular basis.
The type of information VIA provides includes:
- General information about the criminal justice system and the court process
- Notifying victims of the outcome of the first court appearance
- Whether bail has been granted and the terms of any special bail conditions
- Key developments such as court dates or why the case is no longer going ahead
- Notifying victims of their right to complete a victim statement
- Ensuring victims’ views on, for example, a non-harassment order are captured
- Notifying victims about the final outcome of the case
Our correspondence with victims and witnesses is regularly reviewed and revised, with input from victims’ organisations, to ensure it is effective and provides victims with the information they need at the right time.
As well as providing case related information, VIA staff will advise which special measures are available to help support victims and witnesses to give their best evidence and will apply to the court for these.
Special measures include:
- Use of screens to prevent the witness from seeing the accused
- Use of a television link to allow the witness to give evidence without needing to be in the court room
- Having a supporter who can sit with the witness while they give evidence – this can be someone they know, including a specialist
- advocacy and support worker, or someone from Victim Support Scotland’s witness service
- Using the witness’ prior statement given to police as their evidence in court
- Evidence by commissioner hearings which allow all of the witness’ evidence to be taken in advance of the trial
Working with others
The criminal justice system works best when organisations work effectively together. COPFS works collaboratively with all the key criminal justice and victims’ organisations to support victims and witnesses through the court process and improve their justice experience.
Our VIA staff put victims and witnesses in touch with a range of organisations that can offer practical and emotional support. This includes organisations providing specialist support and advocacy services for crimes like domestic abuse and sexual offending, including Rape Crisis, ASSIST and Women’s Aid services, and also includes referrals to Victim Support Scotland to assist with court familiarisation visits and other support for victims around the court process.
Ongoing and future improvements
COPFS recognises the impact giving evidence in court can have on a witness’ road to recovery. To that end, we are actively working to increase the use of pre-recorded evidence to avoid vulnerable witnesses having to give their evidence in a court setting, particularly in relation to children in certain High Court cases.
COPFS are working with Police Scotland and the social work department on pilot projects that are due to start later this year to improve the quality of recorded interviews of children, with a view to using these as their evidence in court.
We are also participating in a pilot in 3 areas in Scotland with Rape Crisis Scotland, Police Scotland and the Scottish Government, to visually record the statements of rape complainers, which could be used in court to avoid them having to re-tell their whole story. Early indications of the pilot suggest positive benefits from visual recording, including reducing the amount of time taken to provide their witness statement to the police.
We recognise there’s more to be done to improve victims and witnesses’ experiences of the criminal justice system. COPFS will continue to listen and respond to the voices of victims and witnesses to inform further improvements, and to work collaboratively with partner organisations to ensure victims and witnesses are treated fairly and with respect.
This blog was provided by Wendy Wilson, Procurator Fiscal Depute of the Victims and Witnesses Team at the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service to Victim Support Scotland for Victims Awareness Week 2020.