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Scottish Court and Tribunals Service recommends introducing barnahus model for interviewing child witnesses

Scottish Court and Tribunals Service recommends introducing barnahus model for interviewing child witnesses

Scared child - Image credit: PA Images

A new report from the Scottish Court and Tribunals Service (SCTS) recommends introducing the barnahus model for children and vulnerable people giving evidence in criminal cases.

Launched in Iceland in 1998 and used across the Scandinavian countries, a barnahus (children’s house) allows children to give evidence in a home-like setting away from court.

Justice Secretary Michael Matheson and Children’s Minister Mark McDonald recently visited Iceland to see it at work.

The introduction of these houses, initially for children, and later other vulnerable witnesses, is a long-term aim set out in the latest report from the SCTS evidence and procedure review group.

The group recommended that children involved in cases for the most serious crimes should be spared involvement in the court process altogether, instead having their evidence taken by trained forensic interviewers and recorded on video with no direct questioning by lawyers.

This would require investment to establish a body of specially trained and experienced interviewers as well as to upgrade equipment and facilities to conduct and visually record the interviews, the group notes.

In the short term, the report calls for legislation change to shorten the gap between initial interview and further examination – something the Scottish Government has been consulting on over the summer – and looks at ways to improve the giving of evidence to a commissioner, which is the current process.

Chair of the working group, the Lord Justice Clerk, Lady Dorrian, said: “In a civilised society, all those who come into contact with the criminal justice system must be treated with respect, and be allowed to engage meaningfully with it.

 “For children and other vulnerable witnesses, this means finding ways to take their evidence in an environment and in a manner that does not harm them further, but allows their evidence to be given and tested fully and appropriately.

“In the first Evidence and Procedure Review report three years ago, we acknowledged that Scotland was still significantly lagging behind those at the forefront in the field of measures to achieve this; and that we need to develop our own, Scottish, solutions to the challenge.

 “This report is another step in the journey to put Scotland amongst the world leaders in delivering fair and effective justice for all, including the most vulnerable in society.”

The Scottish Government welcomed the report.

Justice Secretary Michael Matheson said: “Giving evidence to a court can be extremely difficult and emotional for anyone, particularly a child or vulnerable witness.

“Making sure those witnesses feel safe, secure and able to share their account of events effectively not only protects them from ongoing risk, but helps them give the best evidence.

“The Scottish Government therefore welcomes this report, which sets out a long term vision for better supporting children and vulnerable adults through our justice system.

“We are already seeking views on the reforms needed to enable greater use of pre-recorded evidence and our Programme for Government outlined our intention to legislate on the matter.

“This supports our collaborative work with justice organisations to improve joint investigative interviews and our commitment to providing practical and financial support to ensure the High Court Practice note is implemented.

“Following my recent visit along with Mark McDonald, Minister for Childcare and Early Years to a Barnahus in Iceland we are also considering how health and social work services can work with the criminal justice system to better support children and young people.

“These are all positive steps in the right direction to protect the most vulnerable in our society."

The Law Society of Scotland also welcomed the recommendations.

Ian Cruickshank, convener of the Law Society of Scotland’s Criminal Law Committee, said: “Appearing in court as a witness can be daunting for anyone and it is important that our courts take account of the particular needs of children and vulnerable adult witnesses who are called to give evidence.

“The report’s recommendations will help ensure that the expectations of the court, in terms of producing best evidence and due process, are met while treating people with respect and making it a less difficult experience for those appearing.

“The report is ambitious in its scope and will require fundamental change in the way trials involving vulnerable witnesses are run in our courts.

“It will be essential to ensure that there will be adequate resourcing to ensure its overarching objectives can be met.”

Holyrood is holding a training event on child witnesses on 31 October 2017.

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