Youngsters who witness domestic abuse could give pre-recorded evidence

Child witnesses of domestic abuse should be included in a planned law to boost the use of pre-recorded evidence from vulnerable people in criminal trials, MSPs have said.

Opposition parties back adding domestic abuse to the list of crimes the proposed legislation would cover, which include murder, culpable homicide, assault to the danger of life and human trafficking.

The Vulnerable Witnesses (Criminal Evidence) (Scotland) Bill would create a presumption that existing special measures would be used to allow vulnerable witnesses and victims aged under 18 to have their evidence in criminal trials pre-recorded.

The process avoids them experiencing the trauma of having to give evidence in court and would be rolled out in phases to vulnerable adult witnesses.

MSPs unanimously backed the general principles of the Bill following a stage one debate at Holyrood.

Opposition parties also called for the list of crimes to be expanded to apply to domestic abuse cases heard before a sheriff and jury.

Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf suggested he is likely to include this in the legislation but warned of the resources needed.

Justice Committee convener Margaret Mitchell said removing vulnerable witnesses from having to give evidence in court has several advantages.

“It reduces distress and trauma, improves the quality of evidence because taking evidence earlier in the process aids their ability to recall events and it allows them to get on with their lives,” she said.

“Following powerful evidence about pressures children can experience on giving evidence in domestic abuse cases (the committee) urges the Scottish Government to amend the Bill to include these cases in the new rule.”

Margaret Mitchell MSP
Margaret Mitchell MSP

Conservative Liam Kerr said: “One would have thought it stands to reason that the potential, almost special, nature of the trauma to a child in such cases, as highlighted in evidence by Scottish Women’s Aid, would mandate such special measures.”

Mr Yousaf said: “I note the committee’s recommendation that the Bill should be amended to include domestic abuse in the list of offences covered by the rule.”

He added: “I am extremely open-minded. I am looking at the implications in terms of resource and so on and so forth, which can’t be ignored in terms of this issue, but I have to say I am certainly minded to bring forward an amendment in future.”

Mr Yousaf said statistics suggest 4% of domestic abuse cases go before a sheriff and jury – around 150 to the High Court and 710 in the sheriff courts.

The government later clarified these figures are a rough estimate based on 2014-15 statistics.

Liberal Democrat Liam McArthur said the evidence to include domestic abuse in the list of crimes covered was “compelling” and urged the Justice Secretary to put forward an amendment at stage two to include this.