On 25 September 2023, JUSTICE hosted a roundtable to discuss the recent Victims, Witnesses, and Justice Reform (Scotland) Bill.
Chaired by former JUSTICE Scotland Chair, Shelagh McCall KC, the roundtable was attended by practitioners, academics, victim support organisations, researchers and policymakers, including representatives from the Scottish Government. The purpose of the roundtable was to discuss areas of support within the Bill, areas that gave cause for concern, and how best practice may be embedded within the Bill to ensure that it has the best chance of achieving its purposes.
The roundtable provided attendees with an opportunity to discuss various aspects of the Bill, including its provisions to:
- Introduce a juryless trial pilot for cases of rape and attempted rape;
- Reduce jury size and alter the majority required for conviction;
- Abolish the “Not Proven” verdict;
- Create a Sexual Offences Court;
- Embed a “trauma-informed practice” across the justice system;
- Establish a right to independent legal representation for complainers when applications to lead sexual history or bad character evidence are made;
- Provide complainers with lifelong anonymity in sexual offences and other specified cases; and
- Establish a Victims and Witnesses Commissioner for Scotland.
It was clear from the discussion that attendees supported the underlying principle of the Bill, which is to increase the support available to victims and witnesses in Scotland. There was also consensus that certain aspects of the Bill represented positive developments. This includes certain provisions relating to trauma-informed practices and the expansion of special measures. However, other aspects of the Bill remain controversial. Provisions relating to the abolition of the ‘Not Proven’ verdict, changes to jury sizes and the removal of juries from rape trials attracted both criticism and support from different attendees.
This paper seeks to identify areas of the Bill that attendees would like to see developed further, provisions that attract conflicting views, and also areas of consensus. It is clear from the roundtable that further work is required to increase confidence on those aspects of the Bill which are controversial and/or to respond to calls to remove these aspects of the Bill entirely. This paper also highlights areas of the Bill that attendees found ambiguous. For example, a number of attendees questioned how the Sexual Offences Court will operate in practice.
Finally, whilst some discussion took place regarding the Bill generally, most of the discussion was directed at provisions that had received less public scrutiny or attention. For that reason, this paper should not be understood as setting out an exhaustive list of all relevant matters arising from the Bill. Where attendees had publicised relevant opinions on the Bill, these have been refenced. Nonetheless, JUSTICE Scotland hopes that this paper will be a useful contribution to the evidence in-gathered by the Criminal Justice Committee as part of its work scrutinising and developing the Bill.