Child and vulnerable witnesses
Witnesses are categorised as 'vulnerable' if they are likely to suffer significant risk of harm as a result of giving evidence.
This includes victims of sexual assault, domestic abuse, trafficking and stalking, and those under the age of 18.
The Victims and Witnesses (Scotland) Act 2014 introduced new rights for vulnerable witnesses to help them give their best evidence. This included automatic eligibility for special support measures such as giving evidence via video link.
Pre-recording of evidence by child witnesses in criminal trials
We want to build on existing support and make it easier for vulnerable witnesses to give evidence.
Recording evidence from children as early as possible means that they would not have to give evidence in court during criminal trials.
We introduced the Vulnerable Witnesses (Criminal Evidence) (Scotland) Bill to Parliament in June 2018.
The Bill, which has been informed by findings from a public consultation, will enable greater use of pre-recorded evidence in advance of trial by child witnesses under 18. This is called 'evidence by commissioner'.
The rule will cover criminal cases where the charge involves:
- murder, culpable homicide and assault to the danger of life
- rape and other sexual offences
- abduction and plagium (child kidnapping)
- human trafficking, slavery and female genital mutilation
- an attempt to commit an offence above
The Bill includes powers to extend the rule to adult witnesses deemed to be vulnerable. This covers complainers of sexual offences, stalking, domestic abuse and human trafficking.
The Bill also covers the following:
Introduction of a ground rules hearing
The Bill will allow for a separate ground rules hearing to be held, if necessary, prior to evidence being taken by way of commissioner to ensure that parties are prepared so that commissions run more effectively than they do at present. It will be possible to combine this hearing with any other relevant hearing such as a preliminary hearing.
Allowing commissions pre-indictment
The current legislative barrier for special measure vulnerable witness notices to be lodged earlier (pre-indictment) will be removed and so commissions could potentially take place before service of the indictment if appropriate to do so. This is likely to happen rarely but it does give flexibility to the party calling the vulnerable witness to do so at this earlier stage if appropriate but does not require it.
Simplified intimation process
There will be a new simplified intimation process for standard special measures for child and deemed vulnerable adult witnesses, streamlining the current process by making it an administrative rather than judicial process.
Joint investigative interviews (JIIs)
JIIs are formal interviews carried out by police and social work who need to interview children to get their accounts of events that are being investigated, and to assess whether the child (or any other child) is in need of protection.
We are working with justice agencies to improve the quality and process for JIIs with vulnerable child witnesses. Work includes updating national guidance and improving technology and facilities for JIIs.
We have also committed more than £200,000 to develop a new training programme for frontline staff on carrying out JIIs.
This work, along with a range of other approaches to improve the quality and increase the use of these interviews as evidence, are being phased in between 2018 and 2020.