Victims, Witnesses and Justice Reform (Scotland) Bill stage 1: Justice Secretary's statement

Statement by Angela Constance, Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Home Affairs, to the Scottish Parliament's Criminal Justice Committee on 27 September 2023.

Thank you very much Convener and good morning to colleagues. I very much appreciate the opportunity to appear before committee this morning at the start of your deliberations on the Victims, Witnesses and Justice Reform Bill.

This is landmark legislation, it’s a Bill that puts victims and witnesses of crime at the heart of our justice system.

It contains an ambitious package of reforms to modernise processes and improve the experience of victims and witnesses, particularly in relation to sexual offences. It does so whilst continuing to safeguard the operation of key principles of the justice system and protecting the rights of the accused.

The Bill draws on a wide body of evidence. It has been informed by the work of the Victims Taskforce and the independent cross-sector Review into the Management of Sexual Offence Cases by Lady Dorrian Scotland’s second highest judge.

It is informed by the groundbreaking 2019 Scottish Jury Research study which was led by leading academics. And it follows two public consultations, which demonstrated broad support for measures in this Bill.

Crucially though, the Bill has been shaped by survivors and victims and their families. They have told us that they often feel unheard and cannot access information and that they do not feel safe, and often do not experience compassion.

The Bill therefore represents a transformative approach to build a more modern, responsive, sensitive and person-centred justice system that will ensure that victims of crime are treated with compassion and that their voice is heard.

Trauma-informed practice is key to this. That means making sure those working within our justice system recognise the impact of trauma on those that they deal with, and, where possible, adapt processes to reduce the risk of re-traumatisation. The justice system has been widely engaged in this work as is evidenced by the launch of the Trauma Informed Knowledge and Skills Framework earlier this year.

The Bill provides a legislative underpinning for the cultural and procedural change necessary to embed this practice and I’d briefly like to take you through the rest of the Bill’s measures.

There is clear and compelling evidence that the not proven verdict is not well understood and can result in stigma for the acquitted and trauma for complainers. The Bill will abolish the verdict to improve the fairness, clarity and transparency of decision making in criminal cases.

We have carefully consulted on the other distinct features of our jury system and concluded that in a reformed system with only two verdicts, a requirement of two thirds majority for convictions is appropriate. To enhance the quality of deliberation, the Bill also seeks to reduce the jury size.

The Bill increases protections for vulnerable parties and witnesses in civil cases by extending the use of special measures, and by protecting those who have suffered abuse from being cross-examined by their abuser. It will create a Commissioner who will provide an independent voice for victims and witnesses too.

The Bill also aims to ensure that justice meets the needs of victims and survivors of sexual offences, the majority of whom are women and girls, by addressing - in a practical way – the longstanding concerns about how the system operates for sexual offending.

Now as the Committee knows, the challenges we face as a society to eradicate violence against women and girls are urgent and complex. Part of the solution is in making sure that we have a justice system that commands confidence and that means a system that encourages victims to come forward, supports them to give their best evidence, and holds those who commit these offences to account and this Bill provides an opportunity to put in place significant and meaningful reform.

The creation of an automatic lifelong right of anonymity will protect the dignity and privacy of victims of sexual offences. The right to publicly funded independent legal representation strengthens rights of complainers in a especially intrusive aspect of criminal procedure.

The Sexual Offences Court will improve the experience of complainers through greater use of pre-recorded evidence, improved judicial case management and mandatory trauma-informed training and the new court will also help reduce delays in cases coming to trial.

The time-limited pilot of single judge rape trials will provide evidence and inform debate on how to deliver meaningful access to justice for complainers in cases of rape.

Convener, I want to ensure that victims and witnesses are at the heart of our justice system. And I would hope that the debate and discussion around this Bill bears that in mind and is measured and constructive.

The undertaking I give to committee and others is that I will do everything in my contributions and in my power to ensure that we have the debate of the very highest of standards. As always, I remain committed to working with members, partners, stakeholders and, importantly, people with lived experience to ensure that this legislation achieves its aims and I very much look forward to committee scrutiny of the bill.

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