Review ponders court witnesses testifying by video

VICTIMS and witnesses could pre-record video statements rather than give evidence in court under proposals being considered by legal officials.

However, Brian McConnachie QC isn't sure of the benefits. Picture: Ian Rutherford

It is thought the move could help reduce the length of trials and the impact on victims and witnesses.

The proposal is being considered as part of a review by the Scottish Court Service (SCS) of how proceedings could be simplified and modernised, taking advantage of new technologies, and seeking to secure fairer, more efficient and effective trials.
The review is in its early stages and is expected to report in spring next year.

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SCS chief executive Eric McQueen said: “At the moment, we largely rely on witnesses coming to court on the day of the trial.

“One of the areas we are looking at within this review is the use of more pre-recorded evidence and for that evidence to be in a video format.

“Quite clearly, this would be a big change and we are still at the early stage of research and discussions.

“If taken forward, it would require a change of culture, practice and legislation, but it is one of the ways we are looking to reduce trial times and the impact on victims and witnesses.”

Victim Support Scotland welcomed the proposal. Spokesman David Sinclair said: “We are generally supportive of the idea. It is an assistance to victims and witnesses. Many people are frightened to appear in court and give evidence. This perhaps approaches it from a better angle.”

However, some experts are not convinced by the proposal and said that witnesses would still need to be cross-examined in court. Brian McConnachie QC, chairman of the Scottish Criminal Bar Association, said: “I have great doubts as to what the actual point of it is. There has been a suggestion that it would mean people potentially didn’t have to turn up for court.

“I don’t follow that logic. If the evidence that somebody is to be giving is controversial then whether they pre-record it or not, they are going to have to turn up in order to be cross-examined and the jury are going to have to be able to see how they react to that cross-examination.”

Figures released earlier this year showed that the proportion of sheriff court cases dealt with within the target of 26 weeks had fallen from 75.7 per cent in 2009-10 to 70.9 per cent in 
2013-14. Last month, prosecutors warned the criminal justice system was being put at “huge risk” by funding cuts at a time of increasing workload.

The Procurators Fiscal Society (PFS) said that despite an increase to the Crown Office’s overall budget, money for staffing remained at £69.1 million, a real-terms cut of £1.1m.

In a submission to the Scottish Parliament’s justice committee on the government’s 2015-16 draft budget, the PFS, a section of the FDA civil service union, said prosecution staff were dealing with a heavier workload due, in part, to a rise in police numbers.