Domestic abuse court experiences - perspectives of victims and witnesses: research findings

This research reports on 22 victims’ and witnesses’ experiences of court (including children and young people) since the introduction of the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 in April 2019.

1. Introduction

The Domestic Abuse Court Experiences Research (DACE)

The research aims to explore victims' and witnesses' experiences of court since the introduction of the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 (DASA) in April 2019. This in-depth study with 22 victims and witnesses contributes to a programme of research to meet the Ministerial 3-year reporting requirement of the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 (S14(2)(f)) to provide:

'information about the experience of witnesses (including witnesses who are children) at court'.

This report draws upon the views and experiences of 13 adult victim complainants, 4 young victim complainants (in relation to their own relationships) and 5 court cited child witnesses (in relation to an adult complainant case). It contributes detailed descriptions from participants about their experiences of: reporting domestic abuse to the police; preparation for court; being at court; and after court. Research questions centred on expectations, impact, safety, trauma, inclusion, information, justice, and support[1]. Victims' and witnesses' perspectives on how the court process might better support victims, witnesses and families are incorporated into the report.

This study's context is one of early implementation of DASA and COVID-19 -- important parameters when considering the findings. The 22 participants reported domestic abuse to the police after April 1st 2019 and their cases were closed (trial and sentencing processes concluded) when they were interviewed and by April 1st 2022. Of these, twelve participants were involved in Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 (DASA) cases[2] and 14[3] were involved in cases with a domestic abuse aggravator (as described in S1 of the Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm (Scotland) Act 2016)[4], which is also covered by the reporting requirement. In a qualitative study of this nature the findings cannot claim to be fully representative of all court experiences but rather they provide in-depth insight and understanding of participants' experiences. Furthermore, it is important to recognise that many of these cases were impacted by the context of COVID-19 - a time of unprecedented upheaval to the justice system and associated services, during which the courts had to close entirely for a period of time and where social-distancing requirements meant that they operated at significantly reduced capacity for an extended period.

The scale of the problem: domestic abuse in Scotland

The most recent Scottish Crime and Justice Survey (2018-20) partner abuse findings[5] reveal that: 16.5% of adults said they had experienced at least one incident of partner abuse since the age of 16, including psychological and/or physical abuse. Of all respondents with a partner or who were in contact with an ex-partner in the last year, 3.2% had experienced at least one incident of partner abuse in the previous year (31% of these had experienced more than one incident). A third of respondents reported children living in their household (32%) and 71% of these said children were present during the most recent incident. Under one-in five (16%) said that the police came to know about the most recent incident.

Counted separately, 3.6% of adults reported in the survey that they had experienced at least one type of serious sexual assault (forced sexual intercourse/activity) since the age of 16. Half (51%) of those who had experienced forced sexual intercourse said the perpetrator had been their partner and a further 14% said it was their ex-partner. According to the survey respondents, the police came to know about a fifth of these serious sexual assaults. Partners were most likely to be perpetrators of sexual threats.

The criminal justice system context

There were 65,251 police recorded domestic abuse incidents in Scotland in 2020-21 (and 62,907 in 2019-20); whilst there was an increase during COVID-19 (and fluctuations within lockdown periods), statistics reflect a steady increase over the last 5 years. Two-fifths (40%) of these incidents included the recording of at least one crime or offence; the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 accounted for 4% of the crimes and offences recorded as part of a domestic abuse incident.[6] Domestic abuse incidents resulted in 33,425 charges identified as being related to domestic abuse reported by the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) in 2020-21; 92% of these were prosecuted.[7] The last year for which statistics across the system are available in relation to the Act is 2020-21:

  • Police Scotland recorded 1,665 Section 1 offences under the Act[8]
  • 1,581 charges were reported under this legislation (4.7% of all domestic abuse charges reported); 95% of these were prosecuted[9]
  • 420 people were proceeded against in court in this time period, resulting in 383 people being convicted. The aggravation concerning involvement of a child was proven in 90 of these cases[10]

Whilst the percentage of DASA offences are rising year on year, the majority of domestic abuse offences and charges remain those subject to the domestic abuse statutory aggravator; these offences include common assault and breach of the peace. Of the 27,658 charges reported to the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) with a statutory domestic abuse aggravator in 2020-21, 25,784 were marked by COPFS for proceedings in court. The number of convictions (which can include multiple charges) for a case with a statutory aggravation were 6,515 in 2020/21.[11]

The report structure

The report's introduction sets the legislative, COVID-19, policy and research context for the study and outlines the methodology. Chapter 2 examines victims' and witnesses' perspectives on the Act and its intention to promote a 'modern understanding' of domestic abuse. In Chapters 3 to 6, different stages of criminal court processes are considered: reporting and investigation; preparation for court; being at court; sentencing and protection. The views participants expressed on how the court process might better support victims and witnesses provide sections at the end of each chapter on 'ways forward'. Chapter 7 lays out overarching messages from the findings, in light of the current policy context, and concludes with victim-survivors' perspectives on the Ministerial reporting requirement.

The Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018: legislative context

The Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 (DASA) was introduced to improve how the justice system responds to domestic abuse and to ensure the criminal law reflects 'a modern understanding of what is domestic abuse'[12]. The Act criminalises a course of behaviour that is abusive of the person's partner or ex-partner. This includes spouses, civil partners, cohabitees and those in intimate personal relationships (S11) and recognises the continuation (and often escalation) of abuse post-separation. Abusive behaviour includes 'violent, threatening or intimidating' behaviour (S2(2)(a)) that is likely to cause physical or psychological harm. This course of abusive behaviour can include physical violence, threats, sexual violence, stalking and homicide (that could be prosecuted under pre-existing laws), as well as psychological and emotional abuse (that could not be or were difficult to prosecute under pre-existing laws). It cannot include abusive behaviour prior to April 1st 2019. Key policy objectives were to:

  • better reflect how victims experience a pattern of abuse over time
  • criminalise psychological harm including fear, alarm and distress (S1(3))
  • enable prosecution of various types of abuse that take place over time (on at least 2 occasions) as a single course of conduct
  • recognise cumulative 'relevant effects' on victims such as making the person dependent, subordinate, isolated, controlling their activities and restricting their freedom of action; frightening, humiliating, degrading and punishing the person (S2(3)(a)-(e))
  • more effectively criminalise entirely non-physical abuse

This abusive behaviour can be directed at the victim, a child of the victim (under 18) or at another person (S2(2)(b)) and includes making use of a third party, abuse towards pets, and property. It is an offence in terms of the effects of such behaviour on the victim – the partner or ex-partner. (To note that abusive behaviour directed at a third party, including a child, could be prosecuted as a separate criminal offence committed against that person[13].) An aggravation in relation to a child (child aggravator) (S5) was introduced to recognise harm done to children by domestic abuse, such as 'causing the child to suffer fear, alarm or distress' (S5(10)). The perpetrator's involvement of a child in the offence (S5(1)(a)) can be recorded by court and impact sentencing if it were proven that: there was direct abusive behaviour towards the child; the child was made use of in abusing the victim; the child saw, heard or was present during abuse; and/or the child was adversely affected by abuse (S5(2)-(4))[14].

The Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 Act (DASA) also includes associated reforms to criminal procedure, evidence and sentencing (S12 and Schedule). These reforms apply to both DASA offences and other offences subject to the statutory aggravation involving abuse of partners or ex-partners[15], such as common assault, threatening behaviour and stalking. Of key relevance to this study is the:

  • status of adults as vulnerable witnesses in relation to the Act (already applied in domestic abuse aggravated cases and to any child witness)
  • efforts to enhance victims' safety in relation to sentencing to ensure they are not subject of a further offence by the same person
  • requirement for courts to consider a non-harassment order (NHO) for victims and any children residing with them or/and a child to whom a S5 aggravation relates

All domestic abuse complainers and child cited witnesses are vulnerable witnesses and therefore automatically entitled to standard special measures when giving evidence: a screen in court obscuring the witness from the perpetrator; a supporter; a CCTV live link from a secure location outwith the courtroom. Victim Information and Advice (VIA), part of COPFS (see below), contact the victim/witness and apply for these measures. They can also discuss non-standard measures if appropriate, such as: evidence by prior statement (written/pre-recorded statements form part of the evidence); evidence by commissioner (all evidence is given out of the courtroom before trial, including questioning from defence lawyers); and closed courts (to the public) whilst the victim/witness gives evidence.

A Non-Harassment Order (NHO) against the partner or ex-partner can help protect the victim and associated children through an order banning the convicted person from carrying out behaviour specified in the order that causes, or intends to cause harassment, fear, alarm, distress, for example, contacting the victim and child. Breaches are a criminal offence which can be punished by up to 5 years in prison or a fine.

In summary, the creation of a specific offence of domestic abuse aims to shift understandings of domestic abuse and to 'improve the ability of the police and prosecutors to tackle abuse effectively'[16] and courts' capacity to protect the safety of victims, witnesses and associated children[17].

Key criminal justice and victim/witness support agencies in DASA implementation

Prior to the Act's implementation, key agencies undertook a national programme of training on the new Act and its key provisions. This involved: 14,000 police officers; all Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) legal[18] and VIA staff; and the judiciary (including High Court Judges and Sheriffs) who received training through the Judicial Institute. Their roles and responsibilities, alongside those of key third sector partners, are summarised below (see Annex 1 and the Victims' Code for further information):

  • Police Scotland and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) follow a detailed protocol of procedures and practices in the investigation, reporting and prosecution of domestic abuse
  • The police respond, investigate, take statements from witnesses, and report the case to the Procurator Fiscal (PF, a prosecution lawyer for COPFS). The police communicate with the victim/complainer about their case up to the PF's decision to prosecute (or not); this includes the police informing the victims about bail/any conditions of bail
  • The PF decides whether to prosecute (based on admissable evidence available)[19] and, if so, in which court and on what charge/s. They cite prosecution witnesses including child witnesses
  • The Victim Information and Advice (VIA) service is part of COPFS. VIA staff role is to: inform domestic abuse victims/child witnesses about the progress of their case and decisions made; refer to specialist services; contact victims/child witnesses about special measures and apply to court for special measures for all vulnerable witnesses[20]. VIA and the PF gather information on victims' wishes for a NHO. VIA informs victims and witnesses of court outcomes
  • PFs prosecute in the public interest[21], aiming to prove the case against the accused through evidence led before the court. A defence agent (lawyer) represents the accused, including questioning witnesses on behalf of the accused. A 'plea negotiation' between the PF and defence agent can happen whenever the accused offers to plead guilty to any of the charges
  • Sheriffs/Judges preside over cases in court and make sentencing decisions. In solemn cases juries decide if the accused is guilty or not, with direction from the judge. If the accused is convicted, the sheriff/judge makes sentencing decisions and decisions on NHOs in domestic abuse cases; the PF informs the court of the victim's wishes in regards to NHOs
  • The Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service (SCTS) provide staff and facilities to support sheriffs/judges and to enable court cases to be heard; their responsibilities include providing separate waiting rooms for victims and setting court dates
  • Victim Support Scotland's Court Service provides court familiarisation visits and information; they can sit with witnesses in waiting rooms and potentially sit in court as a supporter (see Special Measures)
  • ASSIST/EDDACS[22] are specialist domestic abuse support/advocacy services, independent of the justice system. They provide a named key worker for the victim/child cited witness throughout the case. Their focus is on risk assessment, safety, support and ensuring VIA/COPFS are informed of victims' and child witnesses' needs, safety and views in relation to the case, including Special Measures and NHOs. They also have access to the restricted court information system (run by SCTS) so can inform victims/witnesses of progress of their case
  • Women's Aid provide specialist support for women, children and young people experiencing domestic abuse across Scotland (not only court witnesses); they provide holistic one-to-one and group support within communities and their refuges

COVID-19, domestic abuse and the implementation of DASA

It is widely acknowledged that COVID-19 increased many victims' and witnesses' exposure to domestic abuse and increased isolation, fear and anxiety at a time of decreased access to support networks and services[23]. Victims' and witnesses' in this study experienced the justice system at a time of significant upheaval, an important context to take into account when considering findings. Significant impacts of COVID-19 on the criminal justice system and victim/witness agencies include:

  • the widespread effects of public health measures, that aimed to reduce the spread of COVID-19, on operations and capacity
  • no criminal trials taking place between March 2020 and July 2020
  • public health measures substantially reducing the capacity to progress criminal trials for much of 2020 and 2021, resulting in a significant backlog
  • challenges in providing support for victims/witnesses in a virtual rather than face-to-face context, at speed
  • challenges in communication about cases

Public health measures were introduced just 11 months after DASA came into force so this undoubtedly had an impact on the legislation's implementation in the period of the study. It is difficult to distinguish the impact that COVID-19 had on the system from problems that existed pre-COVID with the functioning of the justice system, although the pre-pandemic research context in the section below provides a useful touchstone for this.

Importantly, domestic abuse remained a high priority for the Scottish Government, the courts, key justice and third sector agencies during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the challenges. This was reflected in high level partnership working operations, the prioritisation of domestic abuse in court scheduling, the shift to remote services and public messaging efforts aiming to assure victims and perpetrators of a robust justice response to domestic abuse.

There remains a significant backlog in domestic abuse criminal court cases.The Vision for Justice (alongside other policy/ Parliamentary initiatives) details ongoing concern about the exacerbation of delays in the criminal justice system due to COVID-19 (to note that delays existed pre-pandemic), the length of time for cases to progress, and the uncertainty and stress this causes victim-survivors[24]. The Vision for Justice and Recover, Renew, Transform (RRT) programme[25] focus on improving court capacity and justice innovation post lockdown, as detailed in the policy context below.

Scotland's policy context in brief

The Act fits with the ambitions and ongoing delivery plans of the Scottish Government's Equally Safe Strategy (2016) and, more recently, The Vision for Justice in Scotland (2022). Equally Safe's priorities include early and effective interventions, preventing violence, maximising the safety and wellbeing of women, children and young people, and ensuring perpetrators receive a robust and effective response. Key objectives include ensuring: justice responses are robust, swift, consistent and coordinated; perpetrators are identified early, held to account by the justice system and are supported to change their behaviour; and that relevant links are made between the experiences of women, children and young people in the criminal and civil justice systems.

The Vision for Justice aims to ensure that all parts of the justice system and associated services deliver person-centred services and embed trauma-informed practices. The law should be easy to understand and accessible. Key transformation priorities for justice services, third sector partners and the legal profession include: timely, clear communication; individuals and families being involved in decisions that affect them; treating people with empathy and kindness and providing the support they need to thrive; realising where people are affected by trauma; and responding in ways that reduce re-traumatisation[26][27].

Equally Safe and the Vision for Justice state the importance of a gendered understanding of domestic abuse and specific consideration of how women and children experience justice. They state that hearing the voices of victims and witnesses, and ensuring their rights are respected, are at the centre of both policy and practice change[28]. A key aspect of this is to 'share power with those with lived experience of trauma, including service co-design and active participation and collaboration'[29].

New initiatives in Scotland

There are a number of initiatives, pilots and policy/practice developments of interest to this study, stemming from pre and post pandemic reviews[30]. The Victims' Code for Scotland commits criminal justice agencies, alongside victim and witness support organisations, to provide the best service possible, using the principles of the Victims and Witnesses (Scotland) Act 2014 (S1 and 1A) as minimum standards of service that:

  • a victim or witness should be able to obtain information about what is happening in the investigation or proceedings
  • the safety of a victim or witness should be ensured during and after the investigation and proceedings
  • a victim or witness should have access to appropriate support during and after the investigation and proceedings
  • in so far as it would be appropriate to do so, a victim or witness should be able to participate effectively in the investigation and proceedings
  • victims should be treated in a respectful, sensitive, tailored, professional and non-discriminatory manner
  • victims should, as far as is reasonably practicable, be able to understand information they are given and be understood in any information they provide
  • victims should have their needs taken into consideration
  • when dealing with victims who are children, the best interests of the child should be considered, taking into account the child's age, maturity, views, needs and concerns
  • victims should be protected from secondary and repeat victimisation, intimidation, and retaliation

The Scottish Child Interview Model (SCIM) is an evidence based, trauma informed, approach to Joint Investigative interviews by police and social work. It is being piloted in several local authorities, prioritising solemn cases. It seeks to secure best evidence for court processes, and to inform assessment of risk to the child and other children while promoting children's right to recovery.

The Bairns Hoose (Scotland's Barnahus) aims to ensure children who have been victims or witnesses of abuse have access to a coordinated approach to trauma-informed recovery, support and justice (by 2025). The Bairns Hoose is designed to provide a child-friendly, safe and welcoming setting for children to go to once a crime has been reported and provide a single setting through which evidence can be given, and child protection, health and recovery services accessed.

Virtual Summary Criminal Trials Project recommends specialist online courts be set up for domestic abuse cases across Scotland following a pilot of virtual domestic abuse summary trial courts, allowing victims (complainers) and witnesses to give evidence virtually from a remote building supported by Victim Support Scotland. Should it be rolled out in each sheriffdom, as recommended, it has potential to increase protection, reduce trauma, capture best evidence, reduce delays and reduce the length of court processes.

Summary Case Management Pilot in three sheriff courts pilots a new approach to resolve domestic abuse cases at the earliest opportunity, reducing the burden of trial preparation on victims and witnesses. It includes early disclosure of evidence, allows the defence to engage more meaningfully with the COPFS, and early judicial case management. It aims to reduce the number of cases set down for trial unnecessarily and reduce the volume of late guilty pleas and late decisions on discontinuation.

The Scottish Sentencing Council is developing sentencing guidelines for domestic abuse offences and commissioned a review in 2022 to inform the work.

Scotland's research context – domestic abuse court experiences

COVID-19 and domestic abuse research

There is a useful body of research into domestic abuse policy and practice during COVID-19 by the Scottish Government[31], academics in Scotland[32] and international studies[33]. This emerging body of research mainly focuses on practitioners perpectives, although scotlandinlockdown helpfully includes 12 survivors perspectives. The specific concerns raised in Scottish studies in relation to the criminal justice system in Scotland, were: the significant mental health effects of COVID-19, court delays and rescheduling on victims and witnesses, delaying trauma recovery; impact and risk of domestic abuse being magnified by lockdown and amended criminal justice procedures; safety planning curtailed; issues around bail conditions including lack of clarity, breaches, gaps in coverage; victim-survivors losing faith in the justice system including confidence in reporting (especially reporting breaches of orders); and difficulties accessing up-to-date information, challenges for advocacy services in relation to effective advocacy for clients and increased demand for services as ongoing case numbers increase. Particular concerns were raised in relation to children experiencing domestic abuse during COVID-19: being exposed to increased levels of abuse; lack of visibility of children in policy responses and public messaging; lack of access to services; limited engagement with online services; the whole family being affected by court delays; anxiety and inability to 'move on' for court cited child witnesses; and further abuse of women and children through child contact and uncertainties caused by civil processes.

Research with victims/witnesses pre-pandemic

Research carried out in Scotland on victims' and witnesses' experiences of the prosecution of domestic abuse and gender-based violence pre-pandemic is an important context in ascertaining ongoing or COVID-19 specific problems; we therefore draw on three key Scottish studies that pre-date the implementation of the Act and the pandemic.

Forbes' 'Beyond Glass Walls' research (2019) focuses on reporting to the police and the ensuing criminal justice response to domestic abuse. It involved 34 victims and their advocacy workers. She reports on the ad hoc availability of advocacy and support for victims and witnesses, as well as the inconsistent use of risk assessment in the justice system. In relation to the court process, Forbes points to the emotional cost borne by victims and witnesses in waiting for court cases to progress and conclude, further finding that the criminal justice process is not equipped to deal with the depth and range of victims' and witnesses' emotional responses to abuse. The research also highlights the sense of powerlessness that victims and witnesses experience throughout the court process.

Brooks-Hay and colleagues 'Justice Journeys' report (2019) on the experiences of 17 victims of rape and sexual violence as they navigated the justice system. While not explicitly about domestic abuse, definitions of domestic abuse encompass sexual violence and domestic abuse, and rape and sexual violence are all intimate partner crimes. Brooks-Hay and colleagues highlight the stark disparity between victims'/survivors' expectations and their experiences of the justice system. They point to inadequate communication about the justice journey from officials to victims/survivors, as well as concern about the lengthy duration of the process. Victims/survivors reported feeling uncomfortable in police and court buildings, highlighting concerns about their safety during the justice journey. The research also underlines the ways in which victims/survivors felt 'marginal' in the legal process and that the 'system' was weighted to the accused and not adequately addressing the interests of victims/survivors.

The Equally Safe Everyday Heroes Report on Justice (Houghton and MacDonald 2018) is one of the only studies to focus explicitly on child victims and witnesses in relation to the prosecution of domestic abuse in Scotland. This involved 47 children and young people aged 6 to 25, 44 of whom had experienced gender-based violence including domestic abuse (some experienced multiple forms). Their priorities for action to improve the justice system included the need to:

  • strengthen processes and methods to enable children and young people to participate in the justice system
  • increase access to consistent, specialist support and advocacy workers throughout the justice process
  • improve information and communications processes for children and young people throughout the justice journey
  • make practical improvements to ensure the criminal justice system is child- friendly and to reduce re-victimisation and trauma
  • hold the perpetrator to account for the abuse and ensure that young and adult victim/survivors do not feel to blame or on trial
  • involve children and young people with experience of gender-based violence in improving the justice system through direct dialogue with those working in the justice system

The DACE study has been undertaken as part of a programme of research on victims' and witnesses' experiences of court since the implementation of the new Act and is the first to include the perspective of child cited witnesses.


The study started in August 2021 with fieldwork undertaken between November 2021 and April 2022. Twenty-two in-depth qualitative interviews were undertaken with victims and witnesses, 12 of whom were involved in Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 (DASA) cases (details below). A brief summary of the study methodology is outlined below; research questions and tools are provided in the appendices.

Research Design

Study design was informed by research parameters outlined by Scottish Government, Justice Analytical Services (JAS) who commissioned this work. Consultation on study design was supported by input through staff from partner agencies (ASSIST, Edinburgh Domestic Abuse Court Support (EDDACS), and Scottish Women's Aid), two adult survivor groups convened by Scottish Women's Aid, and a children's advisory group convened by Glasgow East Women's Aid. This process informed recruitment processes, information for potential interviewees, and data collection materials. Study design paid particular attention to maximising research participants' choice and control, and ensuring their safety and access to support before, during and after taking part. The context of COVID-19 required that data collection was adapted for remote (online or telephone) and face to face data collection scenarios.

Recruitment and Engagement

Participants were recruited through our three specialist partner agencies ASSIST, EDDACS, and Scottish Women's Aid network members who were funded for their time supporting the study. This recruitment approach was used to ensure potential and actual participants had access to specialist support from a known individual, to help them make an informed choice to participate as well as to have support during and after an interview, and to ensure only individuals who met the strict eligibility criteria were approached.

Prior to data collection, extensive work was undertaken with partner agencies to clarify eligibility criteria and ensure they held a strong understanding of the research approach and questions. Work with partners also supported a degree of purposive sampling: identifying perspectives we wished to prioritise and proactively reaching out to individuals who fit this profile. This included (but was not limited to) lesser heard perspectives such as victims and witnesses from minority ethnic communities and male victims. Particular efforts were also made to prioritise perspectives of those whose cases had been prosecuted under the new law. One challenge for recruitment was the relatively small pool of suitable participants due to eligibility criteria. Key criteria included:

  • an individual had been cited as a witness in a domestic abuse court case
  • cases commenced ('first reported to the police') after 1st April 2019
  • all relevant court hearings were concluded prior to interview
  • a case was prosecuted under the new Act (DASA) or as a Domestic Abuse Aggravated crime


The sample had three distinct groups:

  • Adult victims (n=13): those aged 18+ when subject to domestic abuse
  • Young complainant victims[34] (n=4): those aged 17-22 who were under 18 when first subject to domestic abuse from a partner or ex-partner
  • Child victim/witnesses (n=5): children of an adult victim/primary complainant
Table 1: Overview of sample and (court) cases
Summary of adult victims interviewed
Number (and gender) Age Range No. of cases with DASA charges[35] No. of cases with DA Aggravated charges No. of cases with NHO[36] Victims/witnesses who gave evidence Guilty verdicts
13 (11 female, 2 male) 20 – 54 yrs. 8 (5 no DASA charges) 6 10

7 gave evidence

6 guilty plea prior to giving evidence

9 guilty (for 1 or more charges)

3 not guilty 1


Summary of young complainants interviewed
4 (4 female) 17 - 22 yrs. 2 (2 no DASA charges) 4 2

1 gave evidence

3 guilty plea prior to giving evidence

4 guilty verdict (for 1 or more charges)
Summary of child witnesses interviewed[37]
5 (3 male, 2 female) 12 - 17 yrs. 2 (3 no DASA charges) 4 2

2 gave evidence

3 guilty plea prior to giving evidence

3 (for 1 or more charges)

2 not guilty

21 of 22 participants identified as White Scottish or White British and one as 'Black Minority Ethnic - other'.

Court type and location

Cases took place across 11 court sites in the following locations: Airdrie; Ayr; Edinburgh; Glasgow; Hamilton; Kilmarnock; Lanark; Livingston; Paisley; and Selkirk. There were 20 summary cases and 3 solemn cases[38].

Child cited witnesses

Of the study's 13 adult interviewees, six had children who had been cited witnesses in their cases. One of these was interviewed for the study. This means that information about the experiences of 10 child cited witnesses are included in this study: four through an interview with the child only; one through an interview with both the child and the mother (adult victim); and five others through their mothers' perspectives (mothers were adult victims).

Data collection

Despite planning for the possibility of face to face interviews, the context of COVID-19 meant the majority of interviews (20 out of 22: 90%) were conducted remotely. In most of these cases interviews were conducted via Microsoft Teams, although four took place via telephone in line with participant preferences and access issues and one telephone interview involved a translator.

Given the significance of rapport building and trust when undertaking research on sensitive subject matter, careful consideration was given to enabling this in a remote interview setting. Steps taken included providing a physical 'care package' to each potential participant prior to interview. This included information about the interview, an interview workbook to help manage expectations and guide the conversation, and items to promote comfort and communicate care (hot drinks sachets, snacks, a fidget or stress toy and pens). Additional steps included the option: for a 'pre-call' to see or 'meet' the interviewer; to have a known support worker (or in the case of children, a parent) present online or in person (depending on COVID-19 restrictions); and an infographic to explain participants' rights and steps to support wellbeing within an interview (see Appendix 4).

Interviews were in-depth, qualitative and semi-structured. They focused on the five steps in a court journey (police contact; post statement; court preparation; court; after court) and were supported by visual prompts (see Appendix 5). Interviews were designed to enable participants to determine the interview pace and what to share. Quantitative demographic and case data were collected with support of partner agencies (subject to participants' consent).

Interviews were recorded via TEAMS or a separate encrypted audio recorder, transcribed and stored securely on the University of Edinburgh server. All data was managed in line with UK GDPR and data security requirements.


Data from interviews was transcribed and inputted into NVivo 12[39] for coding and analysis. A reflexive thematic approach to analysis was adopted and undertaken with input from all three core research staff to ensure a robust and consistent approach. The approach to coding was both deductive and inductive: exploring predefined themes of interest and considering new codes and themes informed by participant responses. Throughout analysis substantial consideration was given to: identifying positive practice; considering how prevalent a particular finding was across the sample; and looking for contradictory data and/or outliers. Prior to finalising the analysis, a number of sense-checking and prioritisation exercises were undertaken with emerging findings, shared with key stakeholder groups (practitioners from partner agencies; members of the Research Advisory Group; and survivor reference groups). Findings are carefully reported in subsequent findings chapters. Quotations are usually provided as typical examples, indicating there was widespread prevalence across the data.


The study was subject to a number of limitations informed by the research questions and context. These included:

  • The context of COVID-19 meant that for the majority of the data collection period we were limited to undertaking remote interviews only. We believe that this significantly limited the pool of potential child participants and possibly young complainants who felt willing or able to take part. Both parents and workers voiced concerns that for some children, online interviews would be a less easy context than a face to face interview for building rapport and fostering a sense of safety, reflecting findings about engaging children in remote services[40]. This meant the process of engaging children in the research took additional resources and resulted in a slightly smaller sample than originally planned.
  • Additionally, COVID-19 meant both services and potential participants were under increased pressures, limiting their ability to engage with research activities. Several services cited reduced staff capacity specifically as a limiting factor to their engagement.
  • The pool of potential participants was small, due to strict eligiblity critieria (see above). Relatedly, while the sample size (n=22) is comparable to other in-depth research of this nature, the findings are not necessarily generalisable to the wider group of victims and witnesses. The findings were 'sense checked' in a reflective session with 12 support/advocacy workers from different areas and agencies. The group felt findings were reflective of their clients' experiences as did national representatives of support/advocacy organisations on the study's Research Advisory Group. The sample size, and specifically the small representation of male and minority ethnic participants, prevents meaningful analysis relating to gender or ethnicity of victims and witnesses.
  • The sample has a potential bias, due to recruitment routes used. While these routes were designed to promote participant wellbeing, their use means the study does not capture perspectives of children or adults who had been through courts without advocacy or Women's Aid support.
  • The context of COVID-19 meant it was not always possible to separate the impacts of COVID-19, and related measures, on service delivery from the impacts of policy and standard practice. COVID impacted on all services staff capacity and placed additional pressures and restrictions on service delivery. However, it is not possible to identify whether and how victims' and witnesses' experiences would have been significantly different if services were working outwith the COVID-19 context. Thus, the inclusion of Scottish research prior to lockdown provides a helpful touchstone.
  • 'Case data' from participants was sometimes partial and was dependent on information known to services and/or participants' own limited access, knowledge and memory of events, charges and court outcomes. However, ASSIST and EDDACS had access to the (restricted) Scottish Court information system so could provide detailed and accurate data on cases (accessed for 20 of the interviews undertaken).


Across the study there were a substantial number of ethical considerations including informed consent, child protection protocols, participant support and care in anonymisation of findings. The study was subject to ethical review both within Scottish Government and the University of Edinburgh and was approved by University of Edinburgh's Social and Political Science's Research Ethics Committee. A copy of the application for ethical review is available upon request. The study was overseen and supported by a Research Advisory Group made up of subject area experts and policy officials and convened by Scottish Government Justice Analytical Services, which maintained oversight of ethical issues throughout the course of the project.


The report will now consider how the Act's policy aims have been translated into practice in its first three years of implementation (two of which occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic), from the perspectives of these 22 victims and witnesses.



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