In the Chamber: 5th February – Vunerable Witnesses

Vulnerable Witnesses (Criminal Evidence) (Scotland) Bill
Speech in the Scottish Parliament
5 February 2019
I, like other speakers, welcome the bill. Anything that makes giving evidence easier for children and vulnerable witnesses has to be welcomed. The bill is geared towards children, but it must be wider, to recognise the nature of the crime and how that can make witnesses vulnerable.
I will speak about domestic abuse, as many people have done this afternoon. I welcome the cabinet secretary’s comments on considering amending the bill to make sure that the process is available in cases of domestic abuse where children are giving evidence. That is the right thing to do, rather than introducing that at a later date. The trauma that is attached to domestic abuse is well understood for adults, but not for children. It has a long-lasting effect on their development, so it is really important that, where possible, we limit the trauma as much as possible.
We can imagine a case in which a child is in court giving evidence against a parent—having that person in the same room makes the evidence giving very difficult. It is serious, but quite often the justice system does not treat domestic abuse as serious. That point was made by Daniel Johnson; most cases are summary cases.
The NSPCC noted that a tiny minority of domestic abuse cases are heard in solemn court proceedings; therefore, if the first phase of reform is limited solely to solemn cases, a large number of vulnerable children who will potentially give evidence in domestic abuse cases will not benefit or be protected under this system.
It is important that the ability to pre-record evidence is extended to all domestic abuse cases, regardless of which court they are heard in. It should also be extended to all child witnesses. A court case can take one or two years to come to court and young children will forget the evidence that they have to give, whereas if their evidence were recorded at the time, when the incident was fresh in their minds, they would be much better witnesses. Children in all court cases should be protected, but particularly those involved in domestic abuse cases.
That goes for adults as well, and particularly those who are victims of domestic abuse. Domestic abuse relies on coercion and control and therefore coming face to face with their abuser in court can have a devastating effect on the victim giving evidence in the case. It is right that the bill focuses on children, who need our protection. However, it should be extended to adults in not only domestic abuse cases, but cases where witnesses are vulnerable adults, people with learning difficulties or people with poor physical or mental health. Those people should be afforded the same protections as children, because the way in which they give evidence at a later date could be compromised if they are not.
Humza Yousaf:
Although we are moving towards a presumption of evidence by commission, which we will implement in phases in cases involving adults who are deemed to be vulnerable, it is important to say that as things stand, if there is an application, evidence from adults can already be taken by commission.
Rhoda Grant:
I hope that the bill makes that the norm and that that is applied to adult vulnerable witnesses.
Other members talked about rape and sexual abuse cases. That is another area to which the approach should be extended. Those crimes leave victims extremely vulnerable. We have heard during parliamentary debates stories in which victims have said that the process of going through court was worse than the damage done by the original crime. That is unacceptable. We need to protect people.
I have constituents in the Highlands who have had to go to Glasgow because rape and sexual abuse crime is tried in the High Court. That is not local and those cases can be cancelled at very short notice. In some cases, women have had to arrange childminding, cover for their jobs and somewhere to stay in Glasgow—as well as somewhere to stay for those who are giving them support, the cost of which is not always covered—and they have had to cancel it all at the last minute. If their evidence was recorded, that would not happen.
I know that I am short of time, Presiding Officer, and forgive me if I abuse my position in the debate, but I want to flag up to the Cabinet Secretary for Justice the issue of custody of children who have suffered domestic abuse. Custody is given to abusive partners. I know that it is an issue that the Scottish Government is considering and that the bill is perhaps not the right place to address it. However, I do not believe that a domestic abuser should automatically get custody of their child. Indeed, the opposite is the case: the abuser should not get custody until they can prove to the courts and to the victims of their abuse that they will not harm the child or use the custody to further promote their abuse.
The bill is welcome and overdue. It is striking that Children 1st talked about the court process being an adverse childhood experience, rather than the crime that the child had suffered. Justice should be cathartic, rather than abusive. I hope that the bill will be a step in that direction.