Scotland

Pre-recorded witnesses statements 'could ease courts strain'

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Using pre-recorded witness statements during trials could "substantially" ease the strain on the justice system, a report has found.

The Scottish Court Service said the move could also provide "more accurate and reliable" evidence.

It has been looking at ways of using new technologies to improve the quality and accessibility of justice.

Traditionally, witnesses make an initial police statement before later giving evidence in person in court.

The Scottish Court Service (SCS) Evidence and Procedure Review report found that the conduct of criminal trials needs to change, and should keep pace with changes in the digital age where much of what people do and say is captured on camera.

The report also called on Scotland to go further to protect children and vulnerable witnesses and ensure their evidence is taken in the most appropriate way ahead of the trial.

'Accurate and reliable'

It said: "There are benefits in the ability to schedule the recording of witness statements and examination for the courts, for witnesses and jurors and for the parties; there are efficiencies in the final trial deriving from a procedure that means original statements are edited and appropriate controls placed on cross-examination.

"And, critically, there is every reason to think that the evidence gathered and presented will be more accurate and reliable if taken substantially closer to the incidents in question than the trial diet - in other words, it will make a positive contribution to the ascertainment of the truth."

The report explored what legal and other changes would need to be made to allow pre-recorded witness statements to be admitted as direct evidence, and what safeguards need to be in place.

It said a scheme which deals with children and vulnerable witnesses away from the court setting should be considered urgently.

SCS chief executive Eric McQueen said: "This report aims to stimulate discussion about the very nature of criminal trials - how do we ensure the testimony of witnesses is as reliable, accurate and complete as it could be; how do we eliminate unnecessary delays and preserve a fair, transparent and just system; how do we make sure that young and vulnerable witnesses are safeguarded against further trauma?

"The propositions in this report could transform our criminal justice system. We now need to work through their implications with everyone with an interest, so that the proposals that emerge are ambitious, workable and will help create a modern, fair and efficient criminal justice system for the digital age."

The SCS said it would now work with the Scottish government, other justice agencies, the legal professions and victims' groups to explore the implications of the report's proposals and develop a plan for change.

'Strong call'

A Scottish government spokeswoman said: "We welcome this thorough and thought-provoking research which we believe addresses issues that are key to witnesses and victims, as well as suggesting innovative ways of modernising our criminal justice system.

"The Justice Board will now develop the issues it raises in a short-term working group which will involve partners from across the justice sector including the legal profession, and representatives from children's and victims' organisations."

James Wolffe QC, Dean of the Faculty of Advocates, said: "It is fundamental to the rule of law that an accused person should be able to challenge and test the evidence led by the prosecution. That is the mechanism by which we, in Scotland, seek to ensure that only the guilty are convicted.

"All of us have an interest in securing the sound administration of justice in Scotland - and, used appropriately, technology may provide opportunities for improving that system.

"I look forward to considering the suggestions made in this review - particularly those relating to the evidence of children and vulnerable witnesses - in more detail."

Ian Cruickshank, convener of the Law Society of Scotland's criminal law committee, said: "We would welcome any measures which improve the quality of evidence presented in criminal trials, particularly in relation to the evidence of children and vulnerable witnesses who can find the process very intimidating.

"We also believe that that the admissibility of statements and the modernisation of trial procedure are areas which should be considered.

"However it is essential that any proposal for change will continue to ensure witness evidence can be properly examined without compromising the accused's right to a fair trial."

Children 1st chief executive Alison Todd said: "We are pleased to have this strong call for change. We have long said that putting children under the distress and pressure of court is a poor way of hearing their evidence.

"The current system lets our children down. If we can't hear their evidence we aren't listening to them and we aren't helping them."

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