Communications between criminal justice organisations and victims and witnesses must be improved, according to the Justice Committee in its Stage 1 report published today on the Victims and Witnesses (Scotland) Bill.
The Committee supports the proposal to establish an online hub to give victims access to information about their individual case but warns this should not replace the vital need for human interaction and support for victims. The Committee also believes that the police and courts, must be appropriately financed and trained to ensure they can actually provide the case-specific information required by the Bill, and - in plain written English, to victims and witnesses.
Committee Convener Christine Grahame MSP said:
“Our Committee believes this Bill provides overdue support and protection for victims and witnesses and we hope it will improve their experience of the criminal justice system.
“In particular we believe the flow of information from criminal justice organisations is not as co-ordinated as it should be. We heard in evidence that victims had to tell their often traumatic stories around sixteen times to various criminal justice organisations. This is clearly is not acceptable.
“However, we also believe that improvements are required to certain parts of the Bill, to ensure the rights of both the accused and those of victims and witnesses are balanced. In particular, while supporting victims and witnesses we need to ensure that the access to justice and the presumption of innocence of the accused are protected, and we look forward to the Scottish Government’s response to these and other issues in our report.”
The Committee also recommended that the Scottish Government:
- Clarify or remove the section of the Bill that talks of victims and witnesses “participating effectively” in investigations and proceedings, as this raises expectations of victims that they would have a more active role to play than can realistically be met.
- Provides a definition of “victim” on the face of the Bill which would help clarify what rights an individual has under the Bill.
- Urges them to work with the police to improve its capacity to meet the Bill’s right for victims of sexual offences to specify the gender of their interviewer. Given concerns from the police on the practical difficulties in complying with this request in rural areas for example, the Committee suggests that an explanation is given to the victim and included in the report to the Procurator Fiscal when a request is not met.
- Clarifies as to where the responsibility lies in relation to establishing the vulnerability of victims and witnesses.
- Considers whether introducing restitution orders only for police officers and staff and not for other occupations could prove divisive.
The Victims and Witnesses (Scotland) Bill aims to reform the justice system to improve the experience of victims and witnesses. It aims to put victims’ interests at the heart of on-going improvements to the justice system and to ensure that witnesses are able to fulfil their public duty effectively.