Needs of children and vulnerable witnesses recognised in major evidence proposals

Eric McQueen

A report recommending changes to the way evidence is taken from child and vulnerable witnesses in order to protect them from potential trauma in court has been published today by the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service (SCTS).

The Child and Vulnerable Witnesses Project Report on Joint Investigative Interviews forms the next stage of the Evidence and Procedure Review.

The report makes a total of 33 recommendations that open the way to wider use of audio-visual recording of evidence from children and vulnerable witnesses.

SCTS chief executive Eric McQueen said: “The Evidence and Procedure Review is intended to take us towards a criminal justice system at the forefront of best practice in relation to children and vulnerable witnesses.  This report is part of that journey, identifying how best to capture complete, reliable and accurate evidence as soon as possible after an incident is reported.

“If we get that initial process right, the chances are increased of a child or vulnerable witness not having to give their evidence again if there are legal proceedings.  It also increases the chance of a trial process that is fair to all concerned, and minimises the risk of further trauma to any alleged victim or witness.”

The proposals build on the existing use of Joint Investigative Interviews (JIIs) – interviews presently carried out by police and social workers with under-16s who are victims of, or witnesses to, conduct that might be criminal and might indicate an ongoing risk to the wellbeing of the child. These interviews already can be and are sometimes used as a witness’ evidence in chief in a criminal trial.  They are also used in Children’s Hearings.

The report explores why JIIs are not used as evidence as much as they could be, what improvements can be made to ensure their quality and consistency and how the system could change to make it easier to use them as evidence in chief.  The report’s recommendations include:

Better training of police and social workers to improve skills in interviewing children;

  • A standardised approach to training so smaller numbers of interviewers are trained to a higher standard;
  • Funding to provide urgent replacement of existing recording equipment and the provision of encryption capacity;
  •  Funding for professional transcribers to transcribe JIIs;
  • Legislative changes to allow earlier vulnerable witness applications and the taking of evidence by commissioner;
  • Review and updating of the 2011 Scottish Government guidance on JIIs.

The second part of the report looks at how to extend the visual recording of investigative interviews and witness statements to a) child witnesses not covered by a JII and b) vulnerable witnesses. Its recommendations include:

  • Visual recording of  investigative interviews and witness statements should first be extended to child and adult vulnerable witnesses;
  • Recording should take place when an investigating officer decides it is appropriate to allow a vulnerable witness not to attend court;
  • Work should begin on detailed plans to introduce visually recorded evidence in summary courts.

The report also examines other issues including the type of accommodation used to carry out recorded interviews and recommended improvements and such things as examining the possibility of setting up vulnerable interview centres along the lines of the child’s house (Barnehus) model developed in Scandinavia and adopted by a number of European countries.