04 March 2004

S2M-699 Vulnerable Witnesses (Scotland) Bill

Scottish Parliament
Thursday 4 March 2004
[THE PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 09:30]
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Vulnerable Witnesses (Scotland) Bill
The Deputy Presiding Officer (Trish Godman): The next item of business is a debate on motion S2M-699, in the name of Cathy Jamieson, that the Vulnerable Witnesses (Scotland) Bill be passed.
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Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): The fact that we are making more rapid progress than the timetabling motion suggested is no reflection on the serious way in which the Justice 2 Committee and the Parliament have considered the bill. I congratulate all those who were involved in developing the bill, as it is a worthwhile addition to the improvements that are being made for victims and witnesses in the criminal justice system. Victims and witnesses have long been a neglected and largely forgotten part of the criminal justice system.
I recall being a witness when I was seven. Fortunately, I did not have to go to court. I witnessed a minor matter that involved a bus reversing into a car. Just being interviewed by a policewoman in quite a relaxed way was daunting for a seven-year-old. It would have been much more so if I had been older and had had to go to court, although those were circumstances of no particular pressure. The bill is a welcome development.
Excellent developments have been made to protect victims of sexual offences, on which I have commented. Mike Pringle properly focused on the need to give training a priority and the deputy minister gave us assurances about that. The amount of change in the criminal justice system and in the operation of courts presents the formidable challenge of bringing sheriffs and all who are involved in courts up to an appropriate level of behaviour and experience and of understanding of the legislation. We will watch that with considerable care.
The introduction of victim statements after verdicts and before sentencing was a useful change that was made in the previous parliamentary session, as was the requirement to notify victims when serious offenders are to be released and when they are to be considered by the Parole Board for Scotland. That is all good and adds to the list of worthwhile improvements that have been made.
Annabel Goldie referred to witnesses' concerns and fears in some circumstances. While considering the Antisocial Behaviour etc (Scotland) Bill, the Communities Committee has deliberated a range of issues that are associated with antisocial behaviour and crime in our communities. We will debate the bill next week. I will not tread on the toes of that too much, but one element that has emerged from those discussions and which is worth thinking about is the role of professional witnesses when repeated and serious intimidation occurs. The Executive might wish to consider developing further the role of professional witnesses in some circumstances and the Communities Committee will no doubt return to that subject next week.
As a layman rather than a lawyer, I have always found it slightly bizarre that in our criminal justice system, the Crown Office acts as a neutral arbiter of the balance between the victim and the accused. The situation is different in other countries, where the prosecutor represents the victim. That has further scope for consideration. Such a move would be part of supporting witnesses and victims.
The bill is welcome. I will take great pleasure in supporting it come decision time.

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