‘Milestone’ Vulnerable Witnesses Bill passed unanimously by Scottish Parliament

Written by Jenni Davidson on 10 May 2019 in News

The Vulnerable Witnesses Bill will allow child witnesses to pre-record evidence away from court

Child building with bricks - Image credit: Pixabay

MSPs have unanimously passed “milestone” legislation that will allow child witnesses to pre-record evidence ahead of trials to spare them the trauma of appearing in court.

The changes in the Vulnerable Witnesses Bill are intended to minimise further distress to children who have experienced or witnessed serious crimes such as murder, sexual assault or human trafficking.

It is also expected that it will improve the quality of evidence that they can give as it will be recorded at an earlier stage in proceedings.

Once in place, the changes are expected to benefit hundreds of children each year.

Community safety minister Ash Denham said called the bill “a milestone in Scotland’s journey to protect children as they interact with the justice system” and said it was a key part of the Scottish Government’s work to strengthen support for victims and witnesses.

She said: “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.”

MSPs’ backing of the bill was welcomed by Victim Support Scotland (VSS).

VSS chief executive Kate Wallace said: “We welcome the passing of this bill, which we believe is a crucial step forward in protecting and supporting children and families who have been involved in serious crime.

“It is well known – as we have seen through our own witness services from throughout Scotland – that the process of giving evidence in criminal trials can have adverse mental, physical and psychological effects on child witnesses.

“Victim Support Scotland agrees moving to pre-recorded evidence for child witnesses is one way of avoiding such trauma.

“Further to this, we believe that this should elicit better evidence from victims and witnesses of crime and outcomes for everyone involved in the justice sector.”

The Scottish Government has already committed £2m for the creation of a specialist evidence suite for children and vulnerable witnesses in Glasgow, as well as upgrades to support facilities in Inverness, Aberdeen and Edinburgh.

During the debate on the bill on Thursday Denham also announced £44,000 funding for charity Children 1st to employ participation and children’s rights workers, whose role will be to ensure children’s views inform the Scottish Government’s approach to justice.

Commenting on the bill and the new funding Children 1st chief executive Mary Glasgow 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.”

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