Extra Help For Child Witnesses

New measures to enable child witnesses to give their best evidence in court will be introduced in Sheriff non-jury courts next week. Special measures such as screens, supporters, live TV links and using prior statements will all be available to children who need them in Sheriff Court summary cases from the beginning of April.

Already child and adult witnesses in High Court, Sheriff Court solemn cases and children’s hearings court proceedings are taking advantage of these special measures and during the next 12 months the arrangements will be further rolled out to ensure that adults in Sheriff Court summary cases and all vulnerable witnesses in civil proceedings can benefit from these.

This will mean that by April 2008, a witness who is particularly vulnerable, who is called upon to give evidence in any court in Scotland, with the exception of district courts, may be able to use a range of measures to help reduce the stress and anxiety associated with being a witness.

Deputy Justice Minister Johann Lamont said: “Giving evidence in court can be an upsetting and intimidating experience. Many witnesses will have a degree of anxiety but some, particularly children, may end up being very distressed. We are committed to ensuring they receive the support they need to enable them to provide the best possible evidence in court.

“Our Vulnerable Witnesses Act has already led to major changes in the way that support is provided. From the beginning of April, a range of further measures will be available for children giving evidence in Sheriff Court summary cases. The use of a supporter, TV link or screen will help reduce the stress associated with attending court. Along with measures such as the use of prior statements and the taking of evidence by a commissioner, we will support child witnesses in playing their full part in ensuring justice is done.”

The Vulnerable Witnesses (Scotland) Act received Royal Assent on April 14, 2004. This:

  • Widens the categories of vulnerable witnesses
  • Gives children under 16 automatic entitlement to certain standard special measures
  • Ensures that in sexual or violence cases, children under 12 should not normally have to come to court to give evidence and;
  • Makes provision for a number of special measures to help child witnesses give the best evidence they can. In the case of an adult, these measures would be available where there is a significant risk that the quality of evidence to be given by the person will be diminished by reason of mental disorder or fear or distress as a result of giving evidence

The special measures will include the following:

  • Provision of a supporter to sit beside a witness as a reassuring presence
  • Use of a live TV link allowing the witness to give evidence from a place other than the courtroom
  • Use of a screen so that the witness cannot see the accused and be intimidated by them
  • Use of a prior statement as evidence in chief. This allows a statement made soon after an incident to be a witness’s main evidence and;
  • Taking evidence by a commissioner in certain non-sexual offence cases. This allows evidence to be taken outwith the trial and normally without the accused being present in the same room

The Act contains other provisions to help witnesses give evidence including:

  • Abolishing the competence test, which previously might have prevented some children from giving evidence because they could not pass an initial test to ascertain whether they understand the difference between truth and lies
  • Prohibiting an accused person from personally conducting their own defence where the witness is under 12, or other witnesses, in certain types of cases
  • Prohibition on the accused person from personally interviewing witnesses under 12 in certain types of cases and;
  • Permitting expert evidence as to the subsequent behaviour of the complainer in sexual offence cases