Stephen Naysmith, The Herald
Plans to spare child witnesses from the need to give evidence and being cross-examined in court will be brought forward in the current parliament, Justice secretary Michael Matheson has confirmed.
As the Herald reported in October, Mr Matheson is considering ways to make the system work better for child sex abuse victims and other children who give evidence in cases. Senior figures in the judiciary including Lord Carloway, Scotland's most senior judge, support plans to make pre-recorded video evidence the norm for child witnesses.
Mr Matheson said changes in the law would be brought forward early in the current parliamentary session. "We just need to find the system that best suits Scotland. We hope to have the legislation in place during the second year of the current parliament," he said.
Mr Matheson argues that the current position was not in the best interests of justice. "Our system allows children to face what can be hostile and aggressive cross examination. No one is arguing against the need to change that. The challenge we face is to protect the rights of children without compromising the right of the accused to a fair trial,” he said.
It is thought that the Government is likely to try to introduce a system along the lines of the Barnahus model (Children’s House) used in Sweden, which sees children interviewed by a single lawyer in a specialist centre, taking evidence impartially on behalf of both prosecution and defence.
This can allow evidence to be gathered more swiftly after the reporting of a crime, reduce trauma to the witnesses and sessions can be remotely observed to ensure fairness.
Another method, based on Australia's Pigot model is also under consideration which allows for cross-examination to take place but to be pre-recorded.
Rights of the child / Rights of the accused
While some lawyers have concerns that removing the ability to test evidence by cross-examination could damage the rights of the accused to a fair trial, many feel that the current system is not effective at gaining the best evidence from child witnesses.
Sandra Brown, of the charity Moira Anderson Foundation, welcomed the move, saying: “We have continued to see cases collapsing because young children could not stand up to hostile cross-examination. The human rights of children have been placed well below those of the accused and it’s time for change.”