Legislation to ensure more child witnesses are able to pre-record evidence ahead of jury trials was passed unanimously by the Scottish Parliament last week.
The Vulnerable Witnesses (Criminal Evidence) (Scotland) Bill, introduced by the SNP Government in June 2018, will minimise distress and improve the quality of evidence given as it will be recorded at an earlier stage in proceedings for the most serious offences. Once in place, the changes are expected to benefit hundreds of children each year.
Community Safety Minister Ash Denham MSP said:
“This is a milestone in Scotland’s journey to protect children as they interact with the justice system, and a key part of our wider work to strengthen support for victims and witnesses.
“Children who have witnessed the most traumatic crimes must be able to start on the path to recovery at the earliest possible stage and these changes will allow that, improving the experiences of the most vulnerable child witnesses, as far fewer will have to give evidence in front of a jury.
”We are committed to ensuring these significant reforms are implemented in a considered, effective way and we have already provided the Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service with more than £2 million to upgrade technology and create hearings suites that will support child and vulnerable witnesses to give their best evidence.”
During the debate, Ms Denham also announced £44,443 additional funding for Children 1st to fund Participation and Children’s Rights Workers who will ensure the voice of children informs the government’s approach to justice.
Mary Glasgow, Chief Executive of Children 1st, said:
“Today’s legislation will help to drive a transformative shift in how Scotland’s justice system treats children. The passage of the Bill has been pivotal in uniting the Scottish Government and Parliament around the vision that when children speak out justice is done quickly and fairly and children are supported to recover from distressing and traumatic experiences.
“The cross-party recognition that this is best achieved by developing a Scottish Barnahus or Child’s House is a tremendous step forward. Children 1st welcome the commitment and funding from the Scottish Government to support children’s voices to drive this change and transform the system for every child witness in Scotland.”
The Vulnerable Witnesses (Criminal Evidence) (Scotland) Bill creates a new rule that child witnesses in solemn cases (cases heard before a jury) will record their evidence in advance of trial for a list of offences, including: murder, culpable homicide, assault to the danger of life, abduction, plagium, sexual offences, human trafficking, domestic abuse and female genital mutilation.
It is one of a number of actions the SNP Government is taking to further improve the experiences of victims, including in the current year criminalising psychological domestic abuse and coercive and controlling behaviour, creating a new homicide support service and consulting on improving forensic medical services for victims of rape and sexual assault. Additionally, a new Victims Taskforce, bringing together experts from across justice agencies, the legal profession and those who represent victims, is working to improve support and information for victims of crime.