With the Vulnerable Witnesses Act about to commence for sheriff court summary cases, the Victims and Witnesses Unit reports on progress to date

The first phase of implementation of the Vulnerable Witnesses (Scotland) Act 2004 related to child witnesses in High Court, sheriff court solemn cases and children’s hearing court proceedings. From 1 April 2006, the provisions of the Act were commenced for adult vulnerable witnesses in the same proceedings.

The Scottish Executive is now working with key practitioners towards commencing special measures for child witnesses in sheriff court summary criminal proceedings from 1 April 2007, followed by the final stage of implementing the Act, in respect of child witnesses and adult vulnerable witnesses in civil proceedings in Court of Session and the sheriff court (including fatal accident inquiries), from 1 November 2007. The provisions of the Act for adult vulnerable witnesses in sheriff court summary cases will be commenced in April 2008.

Overall, the Act appears to be viewed very positively. Some of the special measures have been available before the Act. However, professionals welcome the fact that specialist reports are no longer required to obtain standard special measures for children, and that these are now automatic. Now that special measures for children are becoming a commonplace part of court culture, there is less chance of any perceived prejudice due to special measures being used in a particular case.

It is recognised that the Act is still in the early stages of taking effect.

Are you playing your part?

Are you playing your part to ensure the provisions of the Act are making a difference?

  • are you aware of the guidance and witness information materials available?
  • are you identifying vulnerable witnesses?
  • are vulnerable witnesses’ needs being met?
  • are you seeking vulnerable witnesses’ views?
  • are special measures being used?
  • are you aware of the SLAB requirements regarding special measures?
  • are you submitting child witness notices for every child witness?
  • do you know about the role of ESDU?
  • are you aware of the role of the Witness Service?

From the ongoing monitoring and evaluation of the Act, it seems that some practitioners are not aware that the Act is in force for adults in criminal solemn proceedings, and many are unaware of correct procedures for applying for special measures. Remote sites are not being used – why? The Scottish Court Service Electronic Service Delivery Unit (ESDU) can be contacted to arrange a TV link from within the court building, between different court buildings or from a remote site outwith any court building.

Dock identification is perceived strongly as a continuing issue that potentially interferes with the successful use of special measures.

The practitioner guidance urges early identification procedures to avoid dock identification. This ensures that all the special measures can be considered to meet the individual needs of each witness.

Further information

The Scottish Executive Victims and Witnesses Unit website www.scotland.gov.uk/Topics/Justice/criminal/17416/8451 provides a wide range of information about the progress of the Vulnerable Witnesses Act implementation, including practitioner guidance on the Act and information booklets for child and adult witnesses. The website also provides details on the wider aspects of what the Unit is doing to help meet the goal of putting victims and witnesses at the heart of the justice system. A dedicated website for witnesses was launched in December 2006 – www.witnessesinscotland.com, to provide information in an innovative interactive format.

The Act provides a framework for changing the culture with a view to putting witnesses at the heart of the justice system. It is up to practitioners to make this work.

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