'Digital Transformation' Recommended In Courts

26 February 2016, 08:10 | Updated: 26 February 2016, 08:12

A "radical digital transformation'' and better protection to ensure children and vulnerable witnesses are protected while giving evidence has been recommended in Scottish courts.

The Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service has called for technology to be installed in all courts to allow children and vulnerable witnesses to give evidence - and have it examined - without the pressures of the court environment.

The body said studies had found it can be "much more effective'' to pre-record and test the evidence in a controlled environment, at a point in time as close to the incident as possible, including questioning by both prosecution and defence.

The SCTS said it was not proposing to remove the questioning of witnesses - which it described as a fundamental right for the accused as part of a fair trial - but wanted to offer more protection to vulnerable groups.

A report, titled Evidence and Procedure Review - Next Steps, also questioned the requirement for procedural decisions about a case to be made in open court and the need for an accused to attend personally at procedural hearings.

It called for a redesign of summary criminal procedures to take advantage of new technologies, with the creation of a  'Digital Evidence Vault' to store and manage evidence and information relevant to criminal cases.

It also called for a "more streamlined, digitally-enabled justice process, using digitised evidence as far as possible, controlled within a case management system, with the objective to minimise the need for face-to-face hearings in court''.

Eric McQueen, chief executive of the SCTS, said: "For too long it has been easy to describe our criminal courts as products of the Victorian age.

"Our task now is to bring them right into the 21st century, not by tinkering at the edges, but by radical digital reform to improve the quality of justice for all concerned.

"This report recommends that we use technology to allow children and vulnerable witnesses to give their evidence, and have it examined, out with the pressures of the court environment and to modernise the way we do business in summary criminal cases through a digital case management system.''

James Woolffe QC, Dean of the Faculty of Advocates, said: "I welcome the publication of the report. I am glad that it acknowledges the fundamental importance of a fair trial.

"At the heart of the proposals in relation to children and vulnerable witnesses is a recognition that lawyers who examine such witnesses must have a high level of skill and training if we are to maintain that fundamental right while obtaining the best quality evidence and treating all those who participate in the justice system fairly.

"The Faculty of Advocates is committed to promoting the highest standards of effective advocacy and I look forward to working closely with the Court Service as it develops its thinking.''

Scottish Women's Aid also welcomed the report.

Chief executive Dr Marsha Scott said: "If implemented, the recommendations would encourage more women to come forward and participate in the justice process.

"We know that giving evidence, and being cross examined, often re-traumatises women at worst and, at best, is incredibly stressful.

"Women have told us for years that their treatment in court was a reason not to report to police or other actors in the criminal justice system.

"Recommendations around the way evidence is taken, cross examination, and keeping vulnerable witnesses out of court are particularly welcome, and implementation of these measures is highly likely to improve women's and children's chances of accessing justice.

"We look forward to continuing to work with the Scottish Court and Tribunals Service to feed the voices of women and children into court reform, to reduce barriers to justice in the prosecution of domestic abuse related crime, and to improve women and children's confidence in Scotland's criminal justice system.''