EVIDENCE from witnesses could be filmed at crime scenes for use in trials instead of an “attempt to recall what happened many months later in court”, a new report on Scotland’s legal system has said.
A “transformation” of the way witness testimonies are recorded could help move Scotland’s trial procedures out of the Victorian era and also remove the trauma for vulnerable people and children of attending court to give evidence.
Digital technology could be used to “capture and present the testimony of witnesses in advance of the trial” when an incident is fresher in their memories, as part of a move to cut down on delays to legal proceedings and provide more reliable evidence.
The Scottish Court Service (SCS) Evidence and Procedure Review Report, found that the conduct of criminal trials needs to change, and should keep up with changes in the digital age where many incidents are filmed.
Scotland’s legal system should “harness the opportunities that new technologies bring to improve the quality and accessibility of justice”, according to the review chaired by Lord Carloway, the Lord Justice Clerk.
Video conferencing has already been used in some pre-trial hearings in Scotland, with defendants appearing before a court via TV links from prison.
However, the SCS suggested Scotland could go further with the pre-recording of evidence to “secure a more contemporaneous” testimony – a system already in use in parts of Australia.
Pre-recorded witness statements could “substantially” ease the strain on the justice system and bring other benefits such as protecting children and vulnerable witnesses by taking their evidence “in the most appropriate way in advance of the trial”, the report said.
Eric McQueen, chief executive of the SCS, suggested that schemes which deals with such witnesses away from the court setting should now be considered urgently. He said: “This report aims to stimulate discussion about the very nature of criminal trials – how do we ensure the testimony of witnesses is as reliable, accurate and complete as it could be; how do we eliminate unnecessary delays and preserve a fair, transparent and just system; how do we make sure that young and vulnerable witnesses are safeguarded against further trauma?”
Lord Carloway, who chaired the review, previously called for “clear-sky thinking” to help bring trial procedures rooted in the Victorian era into the modern age and to make much greater use of digital technology.
In key recommendations to ministers, the report said: “We need to rethink what constitutes the best evidence at trial – and this may mean a transformation in the way the evidence of witnesses in general is captured and presented. It is highly likely that a witness account taken at the scene of a crime or shortly after will be more reliable, full and accurate than their attempt to recall what happened many months later in court.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We welcome this thorough and thought-provoking research which we believe addresses issues that are key to witnesses and victims, as well as suggesting innovative ways of modernising our criminal justice system.”
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