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Increased use of pre-recorded evidence ‘to reduce trauma for victims’

The Vulnerable Witnesses (Criminal Evidence) (Scotland) Bill will now pass to Stage 2 where changes can be made by MSPs.

Deputy convener Rona Mackay MSP (left) and convener Margaret Mitchell MSP on the Justice Committee (Katielee Arrowsmith/PA)
Deputy convener Rona Mackay MSP (left) and convener Margaret Mitchell MSP on the Justice Committee (Katielee Arrowsmith/PA)

The use of pre-recorded evidence in criminal trials in Scotland could be increased after MSPs on Holyrood’s Justice Committee approved initial proposals.

The committee has been considering the Vulnerable Witnesses (Criminal Evidence) (Scotland) Bill, which aims to reduce the stress and trauma of being involved in the legal system for victims and witnesses of crime.

The Bill will now be debated by Parliament before it is referred back to the committee to include any changes made by members.

In their report, the committee calls on the Scottish Government to fully adopt the Scandinavian Barnahus – or Children’s House – principles.

The Barnahus model means that young people who have to give evidence in a criminal trial, either as a victim or witness, do not have to appear in court.

They are interviewed in a Barnahus, as well as offered support there.

The committee report also stated while pre-recorded evidence by specialist interviewers is an important part of the model – and already covered in the Bill – other elements such as child-friendly design and “under one roof” welfare and well-being support should also be implemented.

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The bill was introduced in June 2018 by Michael Matheson, who was the Justice Secretary at the time (Andrew Milligan/PA)

In the longer-term, the committee also indicated the “one forensic interview” approach should be adapted for Scotland, believing it could reduce the overall trauma a child is put through during an investigation and improve children’s welfare.

The committee also suggested the Bill be extended to include child witnesses in High Court and sheriff and jury domestic abuse cases in the first tranche of those eligible for the new measures.

Further recommendations include ensuring all professionals involved in questioning child and vulnerable witnesses receive appropriate, trauma-informed training, as well as the need to aim to pre-record evidence as close to the alleged offence as possible, to help improve recall of the events in question and allow the witness or victim to start moving on sooner.

Justice Committee convener Margaret Mitchell said: “Events that precede a child becoming either a witness or possibly the victim in a criminal trial are likely to have been distressing in themselves.

“Efforts to reduce the subsequent stress and trauma that can be exacerbated by the legal process are strongly supported by the committee.

“However, we also believe the changes could be more ambitious. The committee is calling for the Barnahus principle to be fully introduced so that young people receive wraparound support through the whole legal and recovery process.”

Our initial focus for such significant reform is on those children for whom it can make the greatest positive impact Scottish Government spokesman

A Scottish Government spokesman added: “We welcome the committee’s support for the principles of the Bill, which is a key part of our wider work to improve support for victims through the justice system.

“If passed, far fewer child witnesses and vulnerable adults will have to give evidence in court during criminal trials by the greater use of pre-recording evidence in the most serious cases.

“Our initial focus for such significant reform is on those children for whom it can make the greatest positive impact – ensuring we do not overwhelm the system and risk making matters worse for the very people we seek to protect.

“We have commissioned Healthcare Improvement Scotland, in partnership with the Care Inspectorate, to develop Scotland-specific standards for Barnahus.

“These will form a framework for health, justice and local authorities to understand what is required to improve our collective response to child victims and provide a roadmap for developing our approach to Barnahus approach in Scotland.

“We will carefully consider the committee’s recommendations and look forward to the stage one debate on these important proposed reforms.”

PA

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