Holyrood committee calls for Scottish Government to go further in protecting child witnesses

Written by Jenni Davidson on 25 January 2019 in News

The Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee has backed the Vulnerable Witnesses Bill but wants the Nordic barnehus model adopted in full

Child with hand over her face - Image credit: PA Images

Holyrood’s Justice Committee has given its backing to plans to increase the use of pre-recorded evidence from children in criminal trials, but urged the Scottish Government to go further. 

The Scottish Government’s Vulnerable Witnesses Bill aims to reduce the trauma for vulnerable victims and witnesses of crime by allowing them to give evidence away from a court setting. 

However, the committee is calling on the Scottish Government to fully adopt the Nordic ‘barnehus’ or ‘children’s house’ model, where children are able to give evidence in a dedicated building with a normal, home-like feel rather than, for example, a police station.

This follows a committee fact-finding visit to Norway in in December to see a barnehus in Oslo.

The committee noted that while pre-recording evidence by specialist interviewers is already covered in the bill, other elements of the model such as child-friendly design and all facilities under one roof are not.

In the longer term, the committee recommended that the ‘one forensic interview’ approach should be adopted in Scotland.

The single forensic interview usually takes place inside the barnahus with only one interviewer, while other parties watch via a video link and feed questions to the interviewer through an earpiece.

However, the Scottish Government is thought to have ruled this idea out at present because of the adversarial nature of the Scottish justice system.

The committee recommended that all professionals involved in questioning child and vulnerable witnesses receive trauma-informed training and that pre-recording of evidence be extended to include child witnesses in domestic abuse cases.

MSPs also warned that the efforts need to be made to pre-record the evidence as close to the alleged offence as possible if the aims of improving the quality of evidence and allowing the witness or victim to start moving on sooner were to be achieved.

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.”

The committee’s call was backed by children’s charity Children 1st.

Children 1st chief executive Mary Glasgow said: "Supporting children to give their best possible evidence, is right for them, right for the accused and right for our justice system. 

"Pre-recording children's evidence, outwith court, is a crucial step to ensuring children do not suffer further trauma.

“Children in domestic abuse cases are still being intimidated by coming across the accused in court settings, so we fully support the committee's recommendation to extend pre-recording to children in these cases.

"We welcome the committee's recognition that children need the system to transform further and faster.

“Children will only be able to give their best evidence when the whole system meets their needs. “The Barnahus or ‘Child's House’ approach is the best way to get it right for children from the moment they tell their story, to the support they and their family need to recover from experiences that could have a lifelong impact."

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