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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Tuesday, May 9, 2023


Trauma-informed Justice for Victims and Witnesses

The Presiding Officer (Alison Johnstone)

The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-08865, in the name of Angela Constance, entitled “Transforming Justice in Scotland—Person-centred and Trauma-informed Approaches for Victims and Witnesses”.

I would be grateful if members who wish to speak in the debate could press their request-to-speak buttons. I call Angela Constance to speak to and move the motion.


The Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Home Affairs (Angela Constance)

It is a privilege to lead this debate, which is my first as Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Home Affairs. I want to pay tribute to my predecessor, Keith Brown, and I look forward to working with all members of the Parliament at what is a pivotal moment in the delivery of Scotland’s transformative vision for justice.

In my short time in post, I have heard from victims and survivors on the lasting impacts of trauma and how the justice process itself can be retraumatising. I have heard the very clear message that the justice system needs to focus less on its own needs and more on the individual needs of people who are seeking justice.

When we talk about trauma-informed justice, we need to be clear about what we mean. Trauma-informed practice means ensuring that the impact of trauma does not prevent people from giving their best evidence. It means witnesses coming through the justice system without experiencing harm or impeding their recovery. It means listening and responding to feedback from witnesses who are living the experience. It means supporting staff to recognise and manage normal human responses to exposure to what is sometimes the worst of humanity, and it means creating and sustaining systems that embody those aims.

We know that change can be difficult, particularly in systems with long-established traditions, but the status quo is not an option, because the benefits of trauma-informed practice for victims and for justice are transformational.

“Trauma Informed Justice: A Knowledge and Skills Framework for Working with Victims and Witnesses”, which was launched last week, gives us a robust, evidence-based and detailed picture of exactly what different staff across the justice system need to know in order to ensure that our justice system recognises the impact of trauma, is thoughtful about how it responds and actively seeks to avoid causing further harm.

I know that our justice workforce wants to deliver that improved experience. Throughout the system, we see dedicated professionals who have come into their jobs to help people who have been impacted by crime. The framework recognises that every contact that an individual has can have a significant impact. From the first knock at the door by the police through to decisions made about parole and release from prison, it details the skills and knowledge that are needed. The framework is for everyone who works in a justice setting, at whatever level, from receptionists to judges, and it provides different aims and outcomes, depending on their role and the type of contact that they have with victims and witnesses.

Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

I welcome the cabinet secretary to her first debate as Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Home Affairs.

On the point about when someone is released from prison, would the Government consider the proposal for the victim notification scheme to be an opt-out scheme rather than an opt-in scheme, in order to improve uptake and communication flow with victims?

Angela Constance

The member raises an important point about the quality and frequency of engagement with victims throughout their justice journey. He may be aware that an independent review of the victim notification scheme is currently under way. I am hopeful that that will report back to all of us in the not-too-distant future.

Implementation of the framework is now key. We are providing £240,000 to fund trauma specialists to support that across the sector, which brings our investment in the framework to nearly £0.5 million. That work will continue to be led by the victims task force, which I co-chair with the Lord Advocate. The task force includes cross-sectoral representation and hears directly from victims, through support organisations and the recently established victims advisory board. It is only through partnership and strong collective leadership that we will make progress.

The launch of the framework follows on from the introduction of the Victims, Witnesses, and Justice Reform (Scotland) Bill. The bill is rightly ambitious and demonstrates the strength of our commitment to the priorities that are set out in the vision for justice and the First Minister’s policy perspectives. It focuses on improving the experience of victims, witnesses and vulnerable parties in the justice system and ensuring that their voices are heard. By including a definition of trauma-informed practice, the bill will help to ensure that there is a consistent understanding and approach and that trauma-informed practice is embedded across the system, including in court scheduling. It requires justice agencies to make efforts to reduce retraumatisation.

The bill also takes forward the recommendation in the Lord Justice Clerk’s review of the management of sexual offence cases to establish a specialist court for sexual offences, in which trauma-informed training will be a key requirement, evidence will be pre-recorded by default, and there will be an automatic right to lifelong anonymity for complainers and state-funded independent legal representation when applications are made to lead evidence on sexual history and character.

Establishing an independent victims and witnesses commissioner for Scotland will also help to make the justice system more trauma informed and person centred. The commissioner will champion the rights of victims and witnesses and will hold Government and criminal justice agencies to account by monitoring compliance with standards of service and the victims code.

In particular, we know that the experiences of women in the justice system are many and varied, and that they may differ significantly from those of men. In this Parliament, it has been a priority, spanning more than 20 years, to work together to build a shared understanding, and a consensus, on how to deal with violence against women and girls.

I am pleased that the bill also proposes to safeguard vulnerable parties and witnesses in civil cases by extending special measures to prevent cross-examination by an abuser.

The justice vision prioritises better outcomes for women and girls and the need to reduce the gap between men’s and women’s feelings of safety, and it reflects the principles in the equally safe strategy, acknowledging that violence against women and girls is underpinned by inequality, societal attitudes and structural barriers that perpetuate that inequality.

When women need recourse to the justice system, it is important that we respond effectively, competently and with compassion and understanding. The outcomes from our women’s justice leadership panel will be vital in continuing our understanding and awareness of the impacts of gender.

We will work to empower all victims and survivors by supporting them to understand what lies ahead, and will ensure that their voices are heard by recognising that people do not cast off their emotions and become just a complainer or just a witness. When we treat people as individuals, we empower them to give their best evidence.

We know that every contact that a person has with the justice system counts. Victims and witnesses need to know that the services that they encounter are designed to support and help them, and to know that the people who work in those services will listen to and respect their needs. Therefore, we are taking action to ensure that victims, witnesses and survivors are, at every point in their justice journey, met by staff and systems that minimise retraumatisation and support recovery.

Alongside training staff and introducing legislation, we are working with partners to improve communications and make the practicalities of navigating the system and attending court easier. One example of introducing innovation into the justice system is the Victim Support Scotland and CivTech project to develop virtual reality experiences as a means of preparing victims and witnesses for court. That interactive tool has the potential to reduce anxiety and the risk of retraumatisation, and we are delighted to be in the vanguard of developing such a solution. We are separately funding collaborative work to review and rewrite communications across the justice sector in order to make them more accessible and person centred.

Of course, person-centred and trauma-informed approaches cannot be only for adults. We are also committed to making sure that children are treated in trauma-responsive ways by our justice system. That is why we are rolling out the groundbreaking Scottish child interview model across Scotland. The model is designed to make the interview process less stressful for children, to secure their best evidence as early as possible and to reduce the risk of retraumatisation. It is already being used by partnerships working across 20 local authorities, nine police divisions and nine health boards, and we will have introduced the model across Scotland by the end of next year.

Building on that momentum, we will continue to work to deliver on our commitment that all children in Scotland who have been victims or witnesses of abuse or violence, as well as children under the age of criminal responsibility whose behaviour has caused significant harm, will have access to a bairns’ hoose, where they can receive holistic trauma-informed support. In the coming weeks, we will publish the national bairns’ hoose standards, which will be tested in pathfinder partnerships from autumn this year.

I am under no illusions about the task ahead: achieving person-centred and trauma-informed justice services will require strong partnership and resolve from Government, Parliament and every part of the justice sector. That matters, because the most serious offences are most likely to cause the most trauma and are least likely to be reported, so improving the victim and witness experience makes for, and delivers, better justice for everyone. Feeling safe and having confidence in the justice system are fundamental for individuals and communities for a just, safe and resilient Scotland.

I look forward to hearing contributions from members on all sides of the chamber.

I move,

That the Parliament notes the publication of Trauma Informed Justice: A Knowledge and Skills Framework for Working with Victims and Witnesses, which identifies six key aims of a trauma-informed justice system; recognises that victims and survivors of crime and witnesses can be affected by trauma in many ways, and that there is, therefore, an imperative for the criminal justice system to be designed to be person-centred and trauma-informed, so that victims, survivors and witnesses are supported to recover from the harm and trauma and possible re-traumatisation that they have experienced; recognises the critical importance of staff having a shared understanding about the impact of trauma, and the knowledge and skills to minimise re-traumatisation and support recovery, and notes the opportunity for the Parliament to further consider these issues through its scrutiny of the Victims, Witnesses, and Justice Reform (Scotland) Bill, which puts victims and witnesses at the heart of the justice system.

I call Jamie Greene to speak to and move amendment S6M-08865.1.


Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I know that you would have wanted to speak in today’s debate but are prohibited from doing so.

I welcome the cabinet secretary to her new position. I want to start on a note of consensus by welcoming the much-needed shift in tone in the Government’s motion. I hope that it marks a decisive change in approach by the justice secretary in how we deal with such matters. The publication of the trauma-informed justice framework is very timely. Indeed, it could not be more necessary right now.

It is also nice to hear the Government using victim-centric language. Language matters. Conservative members have been using such words and language for many years, which have been translated into action, and even bills: a victim’s law, Suzanne’s law, Michelle’s law, the domestic abuse register law, the spiking law and the local policing law. We will hear about all those proposals today from the Conservatives—they were all tenets of our manifesto commitments. Of course, we do not have the privilege of introducing those bills as a Government, but we are diligent and will introduce them anyway, as member’s bills, which is not an easy process.

We are doing so because we—and more importantly, the public—have seen the pendulum swing disproportionately towards the side of offenders in the past decade. I think that the Government knows that and acknowledges that more needs to be done to improve processes for victims and witnesses in their journey through the justice system. As we have heard, victims and witnesses of crime face an uphill struggle throughout that journey, from the initial reporting of the crime, to being kept in the dark about how their case is proceeding, to the lengthy wait for trails and the endless postponement of those trials, as well as the court experience itself. Even if a trial leads to a conviction—and that is a big “if”—the punishment does not always fit the nature of the crime. We have debated that issue vociferously in recent months.

As we heard, even when an offender is released, the victim is more likely to bump into them in the supermarket than be told of their release in advance. If someone breaches their release conditions, those breaches are often repeated offences and the victims have little to no recourse. It is no surprise that so many people have simply lost trust in the system.

Many victims who were consulted during the preparation of the trauma-informed justice consultation said that their lives were in limbo. They suggested that, if they had been given the right support, they could have given better evidence in court, which might have led to better outcomes.

We also learned this year that 60 per cent of those who report domestic abuse to the police have a negative experience, while 50 per cent went so far as to say that they had not been taken seriously. Those statistics should shock every one of us.

We have talked a lot about delays to court cases. I commend the work of Kate Wallace of Victim Support Scotland, who warns that delays and repeated adjournments lead to many victims simply withdrawing from the whole process. That is completely unacceptable. The most recent statistics show median journey times—as they are called—for victims in the High Court sitting at two years and 10 months, which is a 70 per cent rise on pre-pandemic levels. For sexual assault victims going through the High Court, the median time was around four years for a case to come to fruition; four years is a long time for a victim of a crime of that nature.

I remind members that, although the court backlog was exacerbated by the Covid pandemic, it was there long before that. We know that the delays are having an effect on the victims and on their mental health, resulting in increased stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, self-harm and even suicide attempts.

I also commend the work of Sandy Brindley, of Rape Crisis Scotland, who was absolutely clear that we need to see real action on those delays. Kate Wallace and Sandy Brindley are proud advocates of victims of crime in Scotland and I commend them for the good work that they do.

As we heard at topical question time today, there have been delays in getting evidence from victims—we heard about that in relation to spiking. I welcome any proposals on that, especially those from my colleague, Russell Findlay. I was pleased to hear the Government respond positively to that line of questioning.

We also need to improve the court experience. It is fair to say that it is traumatic for many people. One witness who was quoted in the framework paper said that they felt entirely unsafe at the High Court. They said:

“there’s all these people that you’ve just had a case against and you’re a witness ... there’s no safe place to go and sit.”

I think that we all agree that victims and witnesses should never have to come face to face with the accused outside the courtroom setting. These are antiquated buildings, and many are in dire need of much capital investment. I have no doubt that they are staffed by diligent court staff who are trying their very best to clear the backlog.

I think that there is consensus in the room that more needs to be done to improve outcomes for victims, but the question is what we reform and how we go about it. I am of course talking about the Government’s plans for juryless rape trials. Lady Dorrian, in her review of how we deal with sexual crime in this country, made a number of recommendations, many of which I support, but that one, now that it has been seen in the black and white of the law, seems to be facing the harshest opposition.

Today we learned that pretty much every defence lawyer in Scotland would boycott a pilot for such juryless trials. No defence solicitor in their right mind would advise their client to participate in a pilot of a judge-only trial for the most serious of crimes, so I have to ask the cabinet secretary, if the accused has no solicitor, how on earth can it even be a trial, never mind a fair one? What sort of pilot, if it is a pilot, would publicly admit to the world that it has failed in any way? That would surely leave the door open to miscarriages of justice.

Will the member take an intervention?

I would love to, if I had some extra time, but I am really short.

I can give you the time back.

In that case, I would be happy to hear Mr Swinney.

John Swinney

I am interested in the development of the member’s argument, because he is in danger of arguing at cross purposes with himself, which I am surprised about, because most of his speech, which I have heartily agreed with, has been about the enhancement of the situation that victims face, the protection of victims and the articulation of victims’ interests. However, from my listening to him, he has just slammed the door on a means of strengthening the potential outcomes for victims in rape cases. I am interested to understand how he squares that particular circle.

Jamie Greene

Let me respond by quoting something to Mr Swinney:

“Undermining the foundations of the Scottish justice system to increase conviction rates is a dangerous approach which will create a serious risk of injustice.”

Those are not my words; they come from the president of the Law Society of Scotland, whom I know he holds in great esteem. We have also heard repeatedly from every bar association in the land and many eminent lords and ladies and other commentators that they are nervous and uneasy about the plans. It is not only the media or politicians that are fuelling this discussion—it is coming from the judiciary. The Government cannot ignore those views or warnings—in fact, it would do so at its peril.

I understand that the Government has a difficult task, but it cannot achieve reform if it does not take all the cogs of the justice system with it on that reform. If it does not, it will fail, and I would hate to be the person who says, “I told you so.”

Our amendment calls for another aspect of fairness, which I need to plug because I seek members’ support on it, which is that electronic monitoring, while someone is on bail, should not form part of any future sentence if they are found guilty. Someone on bail is untried, and for all intents and purposes they are not guilty, so any restriction that is imposed on them as a condition of bail is to keep them out of custody. It is an incentive not a punishment.

I end where I started. Warm words are welcome, but we have heard them all before—it is time to act.

I move amendment S6M-08865.1, to insert at end:

“, and believes that, through its scrutiny of the Bail and Release from Custody (Scotland) Bill, fairness for victims will be further achieved by the removal of proposals to allow for time spent by offenders on bail, under electronic monitoring, to be considered as part of their overall sentence, and that additional measures, such as affording victims a greater voice in decisions concerning the bail, remand and release of offenders, better protections around their safety once an offender is released and any other practical measures that can better protect victims and their families, ought to be positively considered by the Parliament.”


Katy Clark (West Scotland) (Lab)

I am pleased to open the debate on behalf of Scottish Labour and to speak to the amendment in Pauline McNeill’s name.

I thank everyone who has contributed to the framework, which is a substantial document. We very much hope that it assists with work across the criminal justice sector to address the multiple ways that the justice system exacerbates the experience of trauma for many victims and witnesses. We also hope that it helps to address the impact of experience of the justice system, which is often described by victims as “retraumatising”.

The framework outlines in detail the impact that psychological trauma can have and the need for a person-centred approach. We support the Scottish Government in work to drive a better understanding of the impact of trauma across the system, but we must recognise that our current criminal justice system deals with those issues very poorly, unfortunately.

The trauma that witnesses experience has been known and discussed for decades. The Scottish Labour Party is currently carrying out our own consultation on ending violence and sexual harassment against women, and Pauline McNeill and I are undertaking meetings throughout the country. The emotional and physical risks and difficulties that victims face pre-trial, during trial and at sentencing are raised again and again.

When the Criminal Justice Committee met rape survivors, we heard harrowing testimony. Rape survivors described extremely poor experiences of the criminal justice system, which they felt let them down. Complainers said that giving evidence and their wider experience of the criminal justice system could be as traumatising as the crime itself. The terms “retraumatising” and “second violation” are repeatedly used.

We do not underestimate the scale of the challenge of changing practice in the justice system, because to deliver the necessary change there needs to be greater awareness of the need for trauma-informed practice, and many aspects of the justice system need to be fundamentally changed. The current legal process is not organised around the needs of victims. We need to consider how we can improve the experience of victims and witnesses and ensure outcomes that deliver in the interests of justice.

We are concerned that the new framework cannot be implemented unless the serious challenges that the criminal justice system currently faces are addressed. We have the highest remand rates in western Europe, crowded prisons, extensive court backlogs, a rise in recorded sexual offences, a shortage of criminal justice social workers and a crisis in legal aid. We know that, during the pandemic, the High Court backlogs disproportionately affected women and children, with sexual crimes amounting to more than two thirds of cases waiting to be heard. Our amendment highlights the retraumatising effect of the court process and the impact of court backlogs and delays on victims.

The Victims, Witnesses, and Justice Reform (Scotland) Bill, which the cabinet secretary spoke about, allows for complainers in rape cases to have legal representation when the defence wishes to lead evidence in limited circumstances. We support that, but our amendment invites the Scottish Government to explore further the benefits of expanding the legal advice and representation that are available to victims—in particular, in rape cases.

In recent decades, many other countries with adversarial court systems have introduced greater legal advice for victims and enhanced rights to representation for them in the courts. That seems to have significantly improved the experience of victims in those justice systems. We believe that in order to inform the debate we need to look at what is happening elsewhere.

It is worth saying that Scotland is lagging behind much of Europe on victims’ rights. For example, in Denmark, victims are entitled to state-funded legal advice at the reporting stage, and before and during trial. In Spain, female victims of gender violence have the right to free legal advice, regardless of their resources. In Norway, victims have the right to legal advice before trial and during trial, to the conclusion of the case. For example, a rape victim is entitled to see a lawyer to get legal advice for two hours before they report a rape allegation and they then receive legal representation to the conclusion of the case. Given all the evidence from rape victims about their experience of the justice system, we believe that there is a case for looking at how we can expand the legal support that is available to rape victims in particular, so we ask that the Scottish Government look at what more could be done.

Scottish Labour supports trauma-informed practices for victims and witnesses, but we recognise that that will mean fundamental changes in practice and culture.

The legal profession is threatening to boycott aspects of the Victims, Witnesses, and Justice Reform (Scotland) Bill that relate to single-judge rape trials. The cabinet secretary is correct to say that we need partnership and resolve. A great deal more work needs to be done to ensure that reforms can be implemented effectively.

We look forward to hearing contributions to the debate. As a party, we are open to discussing any ideas that will deliver for witnesses and victims.

Thank you, Ms Clark. I have been informed that because you are not a signatory to the amendment, you need to indicate your support for the amendment before you move it, please.

I am happy to move the amendment in Pauline McNeill’s name.

Will you say that you support it?

Katy Clark

I definitely support the amendment.

I move, amendment S6M-08865.2, to insert at end:

“; further notes recent reports of poor experiences of victims within the justice system, including long waits for court cases to be heard and the re-traumatising effect of the legal process for victims of domestic abuse and rape; invites the Scottish Government to explore the potential benefits of expanding the independent legal representation available to victims, particularly in cases of rape; understands that reform of the justice system will only be successful if the current pressures on the justice system are addressed, and expresses its belief that further reforms must be developed and implemented cooperatively with those who work in the criminal justice sector in order to bring about effective and practical change for victims and witnesses.”

That is a new one for me, too.

I call Beatrice Wishart, who joins us online.


Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

I thank the Deputy Presiding Officer for granting me permission to leave the debate early, and I apologise to members for having to do so.

On behalf of Scottish Liberal Democrats, I welcome the trauma-informed justice framework. I thank all those who were involved in the process—especially those who have been affected by trauma and have shared their lived experience of the justice system.

Trauma affects the ability to cope with stress or difficult feelings, and it affects relationships and the ability to remember events. It is also why some victims take a long time to report serious sexual crimes. Retraumatisation occurs when victims are exposed to reminders of harm that they previously experienced. A witness can be perceived as being not credible because of behaviour that stems from trauma.

A trauma-informed justice system reduces the risk of retraumatisation by understanding what people need in order to feel safe, by making the process predictable and understandable, and by empowering people to engage effectively. That results in a system wherein harms are minimised, the workforce is empathetic and connected, and witnesses are supported to give better-quality evidence.

For the framework to make a difference, all those who work and volunteer in the justice system must receive tailored and on-going training to practise in a trauma-informed way. Effective leadership is needed if we are to achieve a trauma-informed justice system, and implementation must be accompanied by robust monitoring and evaluation.

The framework is a positive step, but it must be enacted across the board; it cannot work in isolation. A fair and effective justice system must understand and identify how discrimination impacts on crime and justice, and must ensure that all victims can seek redress.

The bairns’ hoose model for children and young people who are victims and witnesses requires a transformation in collaborative working between the police, social work services, healthcare services and the judiciary. The Scottish Government has an ambitious goal of making bairns’ hoose services accessible to all who are eligible by 2025. We must see the focus and dedication that will be required in order to meet that goal.

The Victims, Witnesses, and Justice Reform (Scotland) Bill is a welcome step. For some time, Scottish Liberal Democrats have been calling for reform that strikes a balance between the rights of the accused and the needs of victims. I welcome the provision to grant anonymity to victims of sexual offences.

Scottish Liberal Democrats support the proposal to scrap the not proven verdict. By appearing not to clear an accused person of charges, the verdict creates confusion for the public, stigmatises those who are acquitted and fails to provide closure for victims.

The proposed reforms will have impacts on juries. The Scottish Government has carried out mock-jury research, but I echo my colleague Liam McArthur’s request that the Scottish Government explore the possibility of further research with real juries.

The conviction rate for rape is the lowest of any crime type—it is 51 per cent, compared with 91 per cent for all other crimes. Most rape cases never make it as far as court. There is work to do to improve the chances of rape and sexual assault cases coming to court and being prosecuted.

Cross-party work has resulted in improvements to protection for vulnerable witnesses—for example, through allowing evidence to be prerecorded or provided by videolink. Those options must be available for anyone who needs them.

Access to legal aid continues to be a challenge for victims of domestic violence, particularly in cases of coercive control when a perpetrator has debts in the woman’s name. Action is needed to ensure that legal aid provision exists for those who need it.

Victims in island areas must not be disadvantaged because of their location. There have been improvements that have enabled adult survivors of rape and sexual assault in the northern isles to be examined without their having to be flown to the mainland. There is work to do to resolve the situation for children and young people, although there are understandable complexities to address.

Police Scotland’s island-based sexual offence liaison officers, who are responsible for being first responders to allegations of sexual offence, must receive on-going training to ensure that their expertise is always up to date.

Along with my party colleagues, I look forward to the important work of scrutinising the Victims, Witnesses, and Justice Reform (Scotland) Bill as it progresses through Parliament.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

We move on to the open debate. I inform colleagues that there is absolutely no time in hand, so I would be grateful if all members could stick to their allocated time. Any interventions will need to be accommodated within that.

I call Rona Mackay, to be followed by Pam Gosal. You have up to six minutes, Ms Mackay.


Rona Mackay (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)

I welcome the cabinet secretary to her new role.

Scotland’s justice system is on the verge of transformation, with changes that I believe will finally put victims and witnesses at its heart. For too long, our system has focused on process and penalising, with little thought having been given to the experience of the victims and witnesses going through the judicial process.

I have been a member of the Criminal Justice Committee during this session of Parliament and was a member of the Justice Committee in the previous session. I and my colleagues on those committees have heard countless harrowing stories, as Katy Clark outlined, that have shown how traumatising the judicial process can be for victims, particularly women who have experienced sexual and domestic abuse, and the lack of support for them.

Change to the system is long overdue, but change comes with challenges. With the greatest respect to our legal profession, change does not come easily when traditional, centuries-old practice comes under the microscope. However, in today’s world, doing nothing is not an option if we are to have a fairer rehabilitative justice system that is fit for modern society. That said, we need to take the legal profession with us, and a lot of work has to be done.

The publication of “Trauma Informed Justice: A Knowledge and Skills Framework for Working with Victims and Witnesses” will equip justice agencies with the skills and knowledge that are needed to reduce the retraumatisation of victims and witnesses. The framework was developed by NHS Education for Scotland as part of an overall package of funding from the Scottish Government that was worth £440,000.

The Scottish Government’s ambition, which is shared with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and other partners, identifies six key aims of a trauma-informed justice system. Practice should be informed by people with lived experience, and the system should recognise the importance of wellbeing in the workforce; recognise where people are affected by trauma and adversity; respond in ways that prevent further harm; support recovery; and be able to address inequalities and improve life chances. The Victims, Witnesses, and Justice Reform (Scotland) Bill will, if passed, be the vehicle for achieving that, and it will enable the most important transformation of the justice system in Scotland since devolution.

The bill will build on the recommendations of Lady Dorrian’s review group on improving the management of sexual offence cases by protecting the dignity of victims through an automatic lifelong right of anonymity for victims of sexual offences. It will also establish a specialist sexual offences court.

I am delighted that the bill will provide an automatic right to state-funded independent legal representation for complainers when applications are made to lead evidence on their sexual history or bad character in sexual offence cases.

In addition, a pilot of single-judge trials for cases of rape and attempted rape will take place to gather evidence on their effectiveness. I realise that that is a controversial proposal that is, as we know, being resisted by many in the legal profession. However, my colleagues and I met in private with rape and sexual abuse survivors who said that they would welcome that measure. That should be of paramount importance; we must listen to them. Research has shown that prejudice and preconceived notions of some jury members have dictated the outcome of such trials. With the proviso that the judge that is appointed to such a case must be trauma aware, I think that that approach could be a great step forward for victims.

The proposal to end the not proven verdict is one that I welcome whole-heartedly. During the 1970s, a young woman was murdered less than a mile from where I lived. The accused walked free on a not proven verdict due to a legal loophole. That met widespread astonishment and the matter has stayed in my mind since then. A shocking number of trials for rape or attempted rape result in a not proven verdict.

As convener of the cross-party groups on women, families and justice and on men’s violence against women and children, I know that urgent action is needed to improve the experiences of women and children and to ensure that the voices of victims and survivors are heard and acted on. We know that many women who are in prison for low-grade offences have suffered domestic abuse or head injuries and have mental health and addiction problems. Prison is no place for them. It wrecks families and exacerbates the existing issues that led them there in the first place. Providing early intervention and holistic support is the only way to alleviate the situation.

Equally, prison is no place for children and young people. I am pleased that the Government recognises that and is legislating to stop young people being held in adult prisons and to instead place them in holistic secure care. I do not have time to talk about the bairns’ hoose approach, but I am delighted about it.

The radical and transformative proposals that I have mentioned are a huge step in the right direction towards modernising and improving our justice system. With our greater understanding of trauma and how it impacts people—including victims, witnesses and offenders—we must look towards a humane and rehabilitative system of justice that works in Scotland.


Pam Gosal (West Scotland) (Con)

I, too, welcome the cabinet secretary to her new role.

I am honoured to be contributing on behalf of the Scottish Conservatives to today’s debate on transforming justice in Scotland. Earlier this year, my colleague Jamie Greene described a frequent pattern in Scottish Government legislation that

“mingles policies that are good, bad and indifferent”.—[Official Report, 16 March 2023; c 73.]

In my view, the Victims, Witnesses, and Justice Reform (Scotland) Bill is no different. The bill is informed by recommendations by Lady Dorrian’s review group. Although some are commendable, others are more controversial.

The right to a jury trial is a fundamental Scottish right, and its removal will not help the victims of crime. Thomas Ross KC has said that the proposal represents

“intolerable interference by the executive with the judiciary”.

This appears to be yet another occasion on which the Scottish National Party must think again, as Jamie Greene said in his speech.

As MSPs, many of us have been approached by people who have shared their experiences of how the justice system has failed them. Since introducing my proposed member’s bill on domestic abuse last year, I have heard time and again moving testimonies from people who have lost faith in the justice system. One domestic abuse victim said to me that she feels that the justice system often forgets the rights of victims because it is too busy protecting the rights of perpetrators. She asks why it is that she feels confined to her own home out of fear while her abuser walks around carefree, having been granted bail.

Another family has spoken to me about their disbelief that the Scottish justice system can go to such lengths to avoid keeping perpetrators in prison. They speak of how their abuser was able to ruin the lives of their three grandchildren but has yet to spend a single day behind bars. They say that Scotland might well have a legal system but that, until things change, it will not have a justice system. That is why I support my colleague’s amendment to afford victims a greater voice in decisions concerning the remand and release of offenders, and better protection around their safety once an offender has been released.

Similarly, our victims law would allow victims to request that criminals be banned from entering their local area when they are released on licence. It would allow victims to speak directly during parole hearings when a criminal is being considered for release, and it would result in all Parole Board hearings being transparent. I urge members across the chamber to back those proposals.

We know that, although there are problems with the Scottish justice system, they are not felt equally by all groups in society. Some groups, including black, Asian and minority ethnic individuals and people with a disability, can find themselves alienated from the justice system. There are countless examples of that.

One organisation, which deals almost exclusively with BAME individuals, has said that there is a lack of support for female survivors of domestic abuse to attend court. Even in cases in which it is known that someone’s first language is not English, important documents such as citation letters are sent to them only in English instead of in their mother tongue.

Another organisation, which deals with deaf clients, has told me that there is a general lack of understanding of the challenges that are faced by deaf people in the justice system. The organisation spoke to me about cases where deaf victims of assault or rape have had to wait days, or even weeks, before being able to speak to the police about what happened to them, all because of problems with finding an interpreter in time. That is just one example.

I welcome the cabinet secretary’s commitment to a person-centred approach and to ensuring that the justice system is there for all, no matter people’s background or whether they have a disability. The overall message is clear: when it comes to justice, a one-size-fits-all approach simply does not work and there is much work to be done before we have the justice system that victims deserve. The SNP has consistently broken promises to victims, meaning that victims are often left in the dark, without a voice, while the criminal roams free in their community.

We need bold and genuine reform to the current system. That must include punishments that truly reflect the harm that is inflicted on victims’ lives; giving victims the voice that they deserve; and ensuring that victims’ long-term safety is made the priority that it should long have been.


Ruth Maguire (Cunninghame South) (SNP)

I am happy to speak to the Government motion and to support the vision of a just, safe and resilient Scotland that puts victims and witnesses at the heart of our justice system. The publication “Trauma Informed Justice: A Knowledge and Skills Framework for Working with Victims and Witnesses” identifies six key aims of a trauma-informed justice system. They are to

“Understand the prevalence and impact of trauma on both witnesses and the workforce”,


“Avoid re-traumatisation where at all possible”,


“Support recovery from the impact of trauma where possible”,


“Uphold the rights of witnesses affected by trauma to equal and effective participation in the legal process”,


“Support resilience of the workforce and reduce the potential impact of vicarious trauma”,

and to ensure that

“Leadership and management of organisations and systems uphold these aims”.

In some ways, it is a bit strange to find ourselves here in 2023 with those aims and principles not already embedded, when so much is known about trauma. However, the good news is that they set crystal-clear expectations and give a helpful road map to get us there, which I welcome. Change is needed.

Fair access to justice must be underpinned by a justice system that allows victims of any crime to fully participate and give evidence without that process contributing to further trauma or harm. That is fundamental to the rule of law and our democracy, and without it we put at risk the safety and trust of our communities. To meet that vision, we must ensure that our justice system does not introduce new trauma into people’s lives and that it avoids retraumatisation.

I think that we all agree on the critical importance of staff having a shared understanding of the impact of trauma as well as the knowledge and skills to minimise retraumatisation and support recovery. The acknowledgement of the effect of vicarious trauma on the workforce is important, too.

Because victims and survivors of crime and witnesses can be affected by trauma in many ways, it is imperative for the criminal justice system to be designed to be person centred and trauma informed. The motion notes the opportunity for the Parliament to further consider those issues through its scrutiny of the Victims, Witnesses, and Justice Reform (Scotland) Bill. There is much to welcome in that bill—in particular, I join colleagues in welcoming the abolition of the not proven verdict.

Another relevant piece of legislation that is making its way through the Parliament at the moment is the Children (Care and Justice) (Scotland) Bill, which seeks to further children’s rights and uphold the Promise. The bill aims to increase safeguards and support, especially to those who may need legal measures to secure their wellbeing and safety.

In putting witnesses and victims at the heart of our justice system, it is crucial that we remember child victims of criminal harm. The majority of victims of crime who are harmed by children are themselves children. Victim Support Scotland has provided the Education, Children and Young People Committee, of which I am a member, with evidence that it does

“not believe that the children’s hearing system currently takes sufficient cognisance of victim safety or the wider elements of public protection into account, as it is currently drafted.”

The organisation suggests that victim safety and public protection should be more in line with the measures that are available to courts in order to protect victims of crime.

I welcome the Scottish child interview model that the cabinet secretary mentioned. Victim Support Scotland told us that the process of how child victims of crime are dealt with needs to be radically reformed. The organisation rightly points out:

“The Getting it Right For Every Child (GIRFEC) principles and values are not only designed to assist and help children who have harmed but also to help and assist children who are victims of crime regardless of the age of the person who has caused them harm.”

We are still at stage 1 of our scrutiny of the Children (Care and Justice) (Scotland) Bill and I hope that the Government will be open to changes that further children’s rights even more, perhaps particularly on information sharing to allow safety planning for victims.

In a briefing that was sent ahead of the debate, Children 1st highlighted the bairns’ hoose approach, which is also to be welcomed. I note that Scotland’s first bairns’ hoose will open this summer and I support Children 1st’s conclusion that that approach will have a transformational impact. However, I acknowledge that, as Children 1st tells us, more energy and resource will be required to ensure that all children and young people have access to it when they need it.

At all levels of the justice system, we must have an effective, trauma-informed approach that supports people at their most vulnerable. Every contact that an individual has with the justice system can have a significant impact. Evidence shows that how we are treated affects our feelings about, and confidence in, justice processes and that those experiences are often as important as the conclusion of a case or dispute.

For the justice process to work effectively and to encourage people to report crime, victims and witnesses need to know that the services that they encounter are designed to support and help them and that the people who work within those services listen to and respect their needs. With the knowledge and skills framework and upcoming legislation, we have the opportunity to ensure that that is the case.


Claire Baker (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

Although I welcome the debate and the publication of “Trauma Informed Justice: A Knowledge and Skills Framework for Working with Victims and Witnesses”, the cabinet secretary will recognise that the focus of debate over the past few days has been the publication of the Victims, Witnesses, and Justice Reform (Scotland) Bill—indeed, I heard her on “Good Morning Scotland” this morning. I will direct some of my comments to the bill, but the framework, which was published on Friday, is a welcome contribution to the aim of improving the experience of victims and witnesses in the justice system.

Victims of crime, particularly victims of violent and sexual crimes, have described feeling let down and retraumatised by their experience of going through the criminal justice system. The adversarial system involves victims reliving and being challenged on their experiences in the courts, but that is often not what they expect.

The backlog of cases is a significant issue that must be addressed. Delays to justice are, in themselves, traumatising and stressful for victims. In research for the victims task force, people describe the process as like being in limbo. The anticipation of going to court and the anxiety that comes from waiting to go through the process add to the stress and trauma of being prepared to give evidence and have your case brought before the courts. The Scottish Government must tackle court backlogs and properly resource the legal system if the aspirations that are set out in the framework are to be a reality.

Trauma-informed justice is a necessary starting point for improving the experience of victims, but the next steps should include expanding independent legal representation for victims in cases of rape. That is, to a limited extent, included in the Victims, Witnesses, and Justice Reform (Scotland) Bill, which will provide an opportunity to explore the merits of the approach further, as my colleague Katy Clark outlined. In particular, the way in which victims of sexual crimes are treated through the courts, through the investigation and by the media is a concern that I have raised a number of times in Parliament. All those experiences contribute to the trauma that victims experience.

There is broad support in the Parliament for improving the experience of victims and witnesses, particularly in sexual offence cases, and a recognition of the retraumatising impact for victims of experiencing the current system, but the framework that was published last week needs to demonstrate how a trauma-informed approach will be embedded throughout the justice system and how it will lead to a consistent approach for vulnerable witnesses. In her opening speech, the cabinet secretary referred to the role of the bill on that point. The recently published bill also needs to be clear how proposals such as a dedicated sexual offences court will better serve victims.

However, trauma-informed practice will not deliver justice for victims of sexual assault and rape alone. There are persistently lower conviction rates for rape and attempted rape. In Scotland, the most recent figures show that 51 per cent of rape and attempted rape cases result in a conviction, compared with an overall conviction rate of 91 per cent. In 2021, 2,176 rapes were reported to the police, but only 152 of those came to prosecution and just 78 led to a conviction. That is in the context of less than 20 per cent of victims of rape reporting the incident to the police. That is unacceptable.

Rape is a crime that is overwhelming committed against women, by men, and it is a crime that causes extreme distress and trauma, yet it remains difficult to bring it forward to a case and even when it is, it is difficult to successfully convict. Rape is a crime that is often not even recognised as a crime, and one where there is a reasonable likelihood of there being no consequences for the perpetrator. To focus on the bill, would changing to a single-judge trial improve that situation?

The Government must be clear about what defines a successful pilot. International comparisons tend not to show an increased conviction rate, but they demonstrate a more empathetic approach to the case that is victim centred. Will a measure of success be how efficient the change is in reducing delays and delivering quicker decisions? The Government’s proposal is for the judge to issue a reasoning of the decision, which is not required from a jury. How will the victim’s experience be measured and how will that be part of the evaluation? I have some concerns that leaving the detail of pilots to secondary legislation will make it harder for the Government to grow consensus, and the question of what is to be gained from the pilots needs to be answered.

In recent years, there have been two cases in which women have taken their case to the civil courts in the pursuit of justice and to have the offence—the crime—acknowledged. That is not the appropriate route, given the severity of the crime. I have previously raised concerns—following the case of Denise Clair, who bravely waived anonymity to speak about her experience—that women would resort to civil courts. In 2018, Miss M successfully sued Stephen Coxen in a Scottish civil court, with the sheriff saying that the evidence against Coxen was “compelling and persuasive”. That followed a not proven verdict in 2016 and was the first time that someone who had been cleared in a criminal trial was subsequently sued. There is a lesser burden of proof in a civil case, but for women to be resorting to that route indicates that the current system is not working as it should.

Although the framework may improve the experience of victims and witnesses, it requires that action from all partners is co-ordinated and that there is a shared understanding of what it means to be person centred and trauma informed. There are clear advantages for the justice system if witnesses are supported and listened to in a supportive environment, so the cabinet secretary will need to work hard to ensure that that is a priority of the courts and that the objective is shared. For example, Rape Crisis Scotland has repeatedly called for specialist training for judges and sheriffs who preside over sexual offences and mandatory training for legal representatives involved in sexual offence cases. It is important that the introduction of the framework addresses those calls.


Audrey Nicoll (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

First, I want to acknowledge the bravery of all victims and witnesses who have lived through trauma and experienced the criminal justice system. They deserve to have their experiences acknowledged, their voices heard and justice served. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

I also want to acknowledge families, friends and communities who support victims and witnesses by listening, believing and responding, and the many staff in organisations who are often vicariously living the trauma of others who are navigating the justice system.

Our journey towards trauma-informed approaches has derived in part from our growing understanding of adverse childhood experiences and from the evidence base linking a range of social and personal determinants to wellbeing. We know that there is a disproportionate prevalence of trauma among the justice-involved population. Today’s debate is an important opportunity to acknowledge the legislative provisions that are already in place to improve the experiences of victims and witnesses, while at the same time looking forward, not back.

The Sexual Offences Act 2003 modernised sexual offences legislation to include a statutory definition of consent. The Vulnerable Witnesses (Criminal Evidence) (Scotland) Act 2019 provides for child witnesses to give pre-recorded evidence in serious cases.

I am particularly pleased that the Forensic Medical Services (Victims of Sexual Offences) (Scotland) Act 2021 enables a victim to request a forensic medical examination following a sexual assault without first having to report the incident to the police. That has trauma-responsive practice all over it. It empowers a person to be in the driving seat of their own journey. The Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 explicitly recognises psychological domestic abuse, such as coercive and controlling behaviour. Why, then, when hope feels as though it is at its lowest premium for many victims and witnesses, is their experience still so mixed?

Just last week, I spent an afternoon with a criminal justice social work team led by the inspirational Claire Wilson in Aberdeen. I observed its trauma-responsive approach to women in the criminal justice system, which is underpinned by its understanding of the relationship between the women’s experiences of trauma and their offending behaviour. The team is made up of skilled practitioners who are making a difference.

The Government motion recognises the critical importance of developing a skilled workforce, and I welcome the new knowledge and skills framework—weighty though it is—that underpins a whole-system approach to training. Training and workforce development are often somewhat overlooked in debate because members tend, understandably, to focus on the ever-challenging issue of funding.

Recently, the Criminal Justice Committee undertook post-legislative scrutiny of the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018. Although it is clear that the act is supported across the justice sector, training was identified as a key area for improvement. Giving evidence, Police Scotland outlined that 18.5 officers and staff have received baseline training in the legislation, around 13.5 have completed additional core training and around 600 domestic abuse champions have received additional specialist training. However, despite early progress, much more work is required. Giving evidence, Professor Michele Burman highlighted that although training has been rolled out to many thousands of officers, it should be trauma-informed, continuous and reviewed. Similarly, Dr Marsha Scott commented that

“things can be done much better”


“one-off training does not work”.—[Official Report, Criminal Justice Committee, 8 March 2023; c 21.]

The knowledge and skills framework also highlights the role of leadership and sets out options to develop workforce competence through, for example, organisational training needs analysis and establishing effective workforce policies that translate new skills into practice. If I had my way, that would be a mandatory requirement for all justice partners. While recognising that it is for partners to develop training programmes to fit the needs of their workforce and service users, I ask the Scottish Government to ensure that justice partners are provided with the resources and support that they need to deliver a contemporary whole-system trauma-informed approach to victims and witnesses.

The Victims, Witnesses, and Justice Reform (Scotland) Bill, which members have covered comprehensively this afternoon, will soon be the subject of parliamentary scrutiny and it will provide an opportunity to further consider this particular issue. Aspects of the bill are already proving to be contentious and not straightforward, and it is incumbent on us all to ensure that robust scrutiny and strong debate take place. However, as the Rev Kenneth MacKenzie reflected earlier today during time for reflection, in this place where rhetoric matters, it will also be our responsibility to take account of those who sit at the heart of everything that we do—victims, witnesses, workers, children, offenders and others. When constructing our personal narratives and behaviours, we should therefore place them front and centre so that we deliver a truly trauma-responsive reformed justice system.

I call Maggie Chapman, who is joining us remotely.


Maggie Chapman (North East Scotland) (Green)

I refer colleagues to my entry in the register of members’ interests.

I begin by expressing my heartfelt thanks to all the people who are involved in supporting and advocating on behalf of survivors and victims of all forms of violence and those who witness such violence. Structural inequalities and intersectional layers of oppression mean that far too many people are still subjected to abuses of power that cause life-changing—and, sometimes, life-ending—physical and mental harm. Too many of those people go on to be retraumatised by a system that should provide solace, compassion and justice. We should not accept that as inevitable.

We often hear of the mind-blowing resilience of survivors and witnesses and of the mutual support that they can give one another when adequate resources allow for safe and confidential sharing of stories where they are believed and not judged. We should be truly grateful to all those who provide such safe spaces and support victims, survivors and witnesses, often putting their own wellbeing at risk. Vicarious trauma is real. Workers who support victims, survivors and witnesses of violence are subjected to the risk of vicarious trauma every day. Those workers do phenomenally important work and are incredibly resilient.

However, we should not have to rely on the resilience of individuals. There is nothing inevitable about the violence that leads to trauma. It is a consequence of often intersecting inequalities. It is a direct result of imbalances of power. Therefore, our justice system should ensure that it does not reinforce such imbalances of power in any element of its operation. That is why this debate and the bill and wider trauma-informed justice framework that we are discussing today are so important.

I put on record my thanks to the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Home Affairs and, especially, to her predecessor, Keith Brown, for their determination to introduce the Victims, Witnesses, and Justice Reform (Scotland) Bill and their commitment to achieving that.

At its heart, the bill seeks to reorient our justice system towards compassion and care and to put victims, survivors and witnesses at its centre, with a trauma-informed approach embedded throughout.

Trauma is complex and multifaceted. It incorporates both the experience of actual physical or emotional harm or threat and the whole context of that event or series of events and circumstances. It is contained in both the immediate experience of harm or threat and the longer-term repercussions of that harm or threat, even if far removed or detached from it. As one person put it when contributing to the significant work that has brought us to today, trauma

“isn’t just the event, the trauma is the whole process of the event, what comes after, whether that’s police interview or court case or whatever. So people shouldn’t dismiss their part in that.”

The cabinet secretary and other members have already outlined how much needs to change in our system to ensure that we do not, however inadvertently, compound the injustices that victims, survivors and witnesses face, because any retraumatisation is an injustice in itself.

I hope that the Victims, Witnesses, and Justice Reform (Scotland) Bill will help to address some of the current issues. On behalf of the Scottish Greens, I welcome whole-heartedly the aim of the bill to treat with compassion victims, survivors, witnesses and other vulnerable parties during their journeys throughout a reformed, trauma-informed justice system.

I am very pleased to see, at last, proposals to protect victims and survivors of sexual and some other offences through an automatic lifelong right of anonymity. Similarly, I welcome the commitment to abolish the not proven verdict. Although that is one of the things that marks out as different the Scottish legal system, it is clear that it has been disproportionately applied in crimes of a sexual nature—35 per cent in trials for rape or attempted rape compared with just 17 per cent in other cases. In line with our rights-based approach to policy making, it is right that we give the survivors and, indeed, perpetrators of those crimes the clarity of a binary verdict option: guilty or not guilty.

Scottish Greens have long called for proper support for witnesses and complainers, and I am pleased that the bill proposes an automatic right to state-funded independent legal representation for witnesses and complainers when applications are made to lead evidence of their sexual history in sexual offence cases. However, that does not go far enough. I welcome the Labour amendment on the issue. I hope that, during the forthcoming discussion of the bill, we can push the ILR proposal further.

I welcome the establishment of a specialist sexual offences court. Like other members, I welcome the important shift in approach for supporting children and young people through the justice system.

We have already heard about the very strong views on the proposal to pilot single-judge trials for cases of rape and attempted rape. That proposal comes directly from Lady Dorian’s report of two years ago and follows calls from survivors and their support organisations. It is controversial and is a marked departure from the status quo, but, given how the system is failing, such a departure may be necessary. I will follow the issue with interest as the bill is scrutinised in the coming months.

Other elements in the bill and the wider framework also seek to transform, but I will raise a notable issue that was not included: the abolition of the corroboration that is another distinctive feature of the Scottish system. I thank Speak out Sisters and others for their engagement on the issue and am sure that those conversations will continue.

In closing, I pay tribute to the efforts of the many campaigners, activists, counsellors, advocacy workers, legal professionals and others who have worked tirelessly to ensure that our justice processes can better serve victims and witnesses. I thank the many survivors, victims and families who have shared their experiences in order to improve the justice system. This legislation, and the associated justice framework, testify to their hard work and I hope that we can do them justice in the coming months.


Meghan Gallacher (Central Scotland) (Con)

In the past few years, the complex challenges of the justice system have been widely discussed in this Parliament. That system and our legal processes face chronic issues and are in much in need of improvement. A new approach to Scotland’s justice system is important not only for those who encounter that system but for all Scottish people, so that they can feel safer in their communities.

All political parties agree that the justice process must be made easier and more supportive for victims. Although some parts of the Scottish Government’s perceived new vision for the justice system seem to promise steps in the right direction, the work has been unremarkable in practice. Progress on delivery has been far too slow, resulting in many victims feeling constantly let down or lacking confidence in a justice system that is meant to support them. The SNP’s soft-touch approach to justice clearly has not worked, and I hope that the bill will not be another document that gathers dust on a shelf at the back of a Government office.

Victims are at the heart of this, including those victims who will not come forward to seek justice or who feel that the justice system works against them rather than for them. One story that sticks in my mind is of a woman who had been sexually harassed by a sex pest but who told a newspaper that she would not go to court if she knew that her attacker would avoid jail. That is the current reality of our justice system: victims are anxious about going to court and fear that they will not see justice being done.

With violent crime at its highest level since 2013, the number of sexual crimes higher than in any other year on record and the number of domestic abuse incidents at its second worst level ever, it is no wonder that Scotland’s justice system appears to favour the perpetrator over the victim. The Scottish Government must deliver a justice system that takes a multifaceted approach, with victims at its heart. However, this Government has done little to assure me that it can deliver that change.

Broken promises and delays in delivering vital change to the justice system have led to many victims and witnesses being failed by the legal process. There is an endless list of the negative experiences of those who have encountered the Scottish justice system. Many victims have described feeling that they have no voice and being retraumatised or let down by the process. Community Justice Scotland quotes one report as even referring to court as a “theatre of shame” for victims of crime, with some survivors having to relive experiences of abuse and often doing so long after the crime has occurred.

Audrey Nicoll

I have listened to the member’s comments about some of the challenges in the Scottish justice system. Does she agree that those are not unique to Scotland? Although I am not at all downplaying those challenges or saying there is not a lot of work to do, other jurisdictions face similar challenges for multifactorial reasons.

Meghan Gallacher

The SNP has been in Government for 15 years, so we might think that it would have put victims at the heart of its programme for government by now. We are seeing some results now, in this document, but we have yet to see any real and meaningful change for victims within the judicial system. Although the framework is helpful, the Scottish Government could go further to support victims.

Through the Scottish Conservatives’ victims law, victims will no longer be left in the dark, as they will be given greater awareness to understand and utilise the processes that are there to support and protect them. Other proposals, such as Michelle’s law, could ensure that the lived experiences of victims are heard and that victims are considered at all stages of the justice system, which would enable them to be empowered and informed and would allow us to make targeted changes to transform their experiences.

Reports from victims groups reiterate the importance of trauma-focused approaches. For children and young people dealing with the justice system, that is particularly important, because they are at such an impressionable developmental stage of their life. I am pleased that the framework mentions the experiences that children victims face, especially when they are giving evidence. After all, there is the initial trauma of the crime committed against them, then there is the relived trauma of the child having to describe what happened, which is often repeated over the course of many years due to the length of court proceedings. Therefore, I seek reassurance from the cabinet secretary—after, of course, welcoming her to her post—that she will continue to work with organisations to ensure that children feel supported when navigating the justice system and that they have the essential services to decrease their risk of further trauma and serious long-term consequences.

I am sure that all MSPs would agree that having a justice system that is trauma informed will reassure victims that the Government is on their side. However, until we see those meaningful changes, I am afraid that it is all just words. The individual experiences that determine whether events or circumstances are traumatic highlight why the justice system must be trauma focused and prevent further harm to survivors of crime, unlike the current system. We need a fundamental transformation of Scotland’s justice system that moves away from the SNP’s soft-touch approach and ensures fair and transparent legal processes that better serve and protect victims, witnesses and vulnerable groups. In doing so, we can make Scotland’s communities safer and adapt to the needs of modern Scotland.

I call Collette Stevenson, who will be the final speaker before we move to closing speeches.


Collette Stevenson (East Kilbride) (SNP)

We all want a just, safe and resilient Scotland that puts victims and witnesses at the heart of the justice system. I welcome the publication of the trauma-informed justice framework, which, alongside many of the things that are currently going through Parliament, including the Victims, Witnesses, and Justice Reform (Scotland) Bill, will help to transform the justice system.

A key aim in “The Vision for Justice in Scotland”, which was published by the Scottish Government last year, is to have

“effective, modern person-centred and trauma-informed approaches to justice in which everyone can have trust, including as victims, those accused of crimes and as individuals in civil disputes”.

We have seen a growing focus on person-centred and trauma-informed services, and that is very welcome—particularly in the justice system. As a member of the Criminal Justice Committee, I have heard lots of evidence over the past couple of years that reinforces my belief that we must make sure that we get trauma-informed practice absolutely right. Being a victim of crime can be traumatising, but I have heard time and again from constituents and witnesses at committee that going through the justice system can be just as bad. Victims and their representatives have told us that their experience of the justice system was just as traumatic as their being attacked or that they might avoid reporting offences in the future.

As the trauma-informed justice framework sets out, it is possible to reduce both the risk of retraumatising people and the distress that they may experience by understanding what they need in order to feel safe, making the process predictable and understandable and empowering them to engage effectively.

The Victims, Witnesses, and Justice Reform (Scotland) Bill is a landmark piece of legislation—among the most significant since devolution. It will ensure that fairness is cemented into the bedrock of Scotland’s modern-day justice system, and it will move us closer to delivering person-centred, trauma-informed practice across our justice services. The bill contains a big package of measures that, together, will lead to a transformed approach in how victims are treated, with a more responsive and sensitive justice process. In particular, that will improve the experience of victims of sexual crime.

In recognition of the complex and interlinked nature of the jury system, the bill makes related reforms to jury size and the majority required for conviction. Those reforms are intended to increase confidence that verdicts are returned on a sound, rational basis while ensuring balance and fairness to all parties. I also welcome the proposal to abolish the not proven verdict and the pilots of single-judge trials for rape and attempted rape cases.

Legislative changes are important, of course. We, in this chamber, make the laws that prosecutors and judges follow, but support for the wider justice sector workforce is also important. We need to ensure that that workforce receives the training that it needs and wants and that it is supported to best carry out its roles. Police officers and support staff, court clerks, social workers, employees of the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service and judges work day in, day out to deliver justice and support people through the justice system as best they can. However, that workforce is not immune to the distress, which is why the trauma-informed justice framework is so important. It recognises those challenges and sets out ways to acknowledge and understand the impact of trauma on witnesses and the workforce; to minimise the risk of harm and retraumatisation of witnesses; to avoid, where possible, interfering with witnesses’ recovery from the impact of trauma; to enable witnesses affected by trauma to participate effectively and give best-quality evidence; and to support, with trauma-informed leadership and management, the wellbeing and resilience of the workforce.

Those proposals build on the Scottish Government’s record. In the past 15 years, the SNP in Government has promoted and delivered groundbreaking legislative reform to improve victims’ rights. That includes the Victims and Witnesses (Scotland) Act 2014, which improved the support and information available to victims and witnesses of crime and introduced a range of rights for victims. Our gold standard Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 brought together, within one offence, the modern understanding of what is domestic abuse, which included criminalising explicitly psychological domestic abuse such as coercive and controlling behaviour.

At all levels of the justice system, we must have an effective, trauma-informed approach that supports people at their most vulnerable. Every contact that an individual has with the justice system can have a significant impact. The trauma-informed justice framework and the Victims, Witnesses, and Justice Reform (Scotland) Bill will ensure that victims are treated with compassion and that their voices are heard across the justice system. I fully support those initiatives.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

We move to the closing speeches. I note that one member who participated in the debate is not here for the closing speeches, which is a discourtesy to other members, and indeed to the chair.


Pauline McNeill (Glasgow) (Lab)

I speak in support of the amendment in my name.

The timetabling of the debate was pretty fast on the back of the publication of the report on Friday. Would the cabinet secretary take my point that that is not ideal, given the importance of the issue? Further, the Criminal Justice Committee begins its important stage 2 consideration of the Bail and Release from Custody (Scotland) Bill tomorrow.

That being said, as Katy Clark said, Scottish Labour welcomes fully the publication of the trauma-informed justice framework, which seeks to ensure that our justice system does not introduce additional trauma into people’s lives and that it avoids retraumatisation.

I welcome what the cabinet secretary said in her opening speech about the importance of the pioneering work of preparing witnesses for court. Like other members, I have, over many years, been contacted by many victims and witnesses of crime who have told harrowing stories of their experiences of the criminal justice system. For example, I have heard about victims who ran into the accused in the lobby of the court. That is totally unacceptable in any system. Only last month, one victim told me that defence counsel pointed to her in the public gallery during sentencing. I am taking that up with the dean of the Faculty of Advocates. There must be accountability for things like that.

However, those are not isolated incidents in the justice system. As many members have mentioned, recent reports that were commissioned by the Scottish Government have also highlighted delays to hearings, people being put at physical and mental risk during the court process, and the impact on young children as major failings in the current system.

Just last week, the Criminal Justice Committee published its “Post-legislative scrutiny of the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018” report, which highlighted delays in specialist Police Scotland training for officers on domestic abuse cases and asked for all officers to be trained in recognising the non-physical violence that elements of that legislation relate to. The report appreciates, however, that that is a very new development in the law.

I agree that it is about time that we ensure that our justice system works for all and does not cause further harm and trauma to those who have experienced or witnessed crime. That is not just the right thing to do; it is wholly necessary in order to ensure that victims and witnesses continue to come forward to report crime, in the full knowledge that—as we would all hope—they will be treated fairly and with the relevant support. Scottish Labour is fully committed to working together in Parliament to deliver meaningful change in those systems and practices, and to enable victims and witnesses of traumatic offences to participate in the legal process effectively.

I agree with Pam Gosal that it is important to consider people whose first language is not English. I would hope that we have come a long way since the Chhokar case many years ago, but that goes back to exactly the point that the then Lord Advocate drew out from that case: that the family could not understand the process because it was not communicated to them in their own language. As Collette Stevenson rightly said, it is important that victims who come forward understand the full extent of the process.

Nonetheless, it is clear that responding in a trauma-informed way is not always sufficient for procedural justice. The framework also needs to be considered alongside and in addition to other work that will enable us to have a fair and effective justice system. I am sure that the justice secretary agrees that the reform of the justice system will be successful only if we also deal with and properly address the current financial pressures, and if we fund services properly in accordance with the six aims that are identified in the framework.

We also need to have regular reports to Parliament. Katy Clark and I have called for that in the past, because the Government needs to continue to bring down the timescales for court proceedings, as prescribed in the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1995. They are still far too long; as Jamie Greene highlighted, it is outrageous that crimes such as rape are taking years to come to court. We need to check whether we are genuinely making systematic progress in going back to the days when the 1995 act was being fully complied with. The recent “2022 UK Judicial Attitude Survey” report found that nearly half of Scottish sheriffs and judges are concerned about the morale of court staff, amid lengthy backlogs.

All those matters need to be addressed as we look at how we ensure that our court system functions in a better way. We must also ensure that the framework does not simply impose an additional level of bureaucracy on an already stretched and understaffed justice workforce. I would appreciate it if the cabinet secretary would address that point in summing up.

I agree in principle with creating a trauma-informed justice system, but I ask the Scottish Government whether it intends to monitor the effective implementation of the framework across the sector in order to ensure that victims and witnesses across Scotland are receiving similar treatment when they come into contact with services. Claire Baker also made that point. If we are going to implement the framework at all, it has to be applied consistently.

It is a hugely important component of any democratic society that people have equal access to justice and receive equal treatment when they come into contact with the justice system, and we must ensure that everyone who comes into contact with the justice system is treated fairly and equitably. That includes those who are accused of a crime, while they are awaiting trial.

As Katy Clark said in her opening remarks, and as Parliament has addressed previously, it is time for a form of legal representation for victims. We support the provision in the bill, but we want to talk about how we could go further than that.

I have addressed the points about the framework and not the wider legislative questions, but I hope that we will get the chance to discuss those in due course. Katy Clark and Claire Baker talked about the need for wider reform, and they said—I support this view—that the Government must clearly set out, when we come to the debate, what its aims and objectives are, and the potential impact of the proposed substantial changes to our legal system, so that we can scrutinise those changes properly. If any such changes are to be made, it is very important that we take everybody with us.


Russell Findlay (West Scotland) (Con)

The Scottish Government loves to talk the talk when it comes to putting victims and witnesses at the heart of the justice system. It tells us that public protection is paramount, yet police officer numbers are at their lowest for 15 years. The Government insists that our officers are valued and supported, yet Police Scotland remains the only UK force without standard issue body-worn cameras. The Government says that it cares about domestic violence victims, yet a pilot of fully virtual trials—hailed as “groundbreaking” by the then justice secretary, Humza Yousaf—saw just 24 such trials actually take place.

The Government says that it wants to protect vulnerable female prisoners, yet in the six months since they opened, the two custody units in Glasgow and Dundee have never been more than half full. It says that it cares about child victims and sex crime victims, yet a child rape victim regrets seeking justice after her attacker was given community service.

I am sure that you get the idea, Presiding Officer. I could go on and fill my six minutes with similar examples of the chasm between the SNP Government’s public relations handout and the reality for people across Scotland. Today, in 2023, we hear the same painful stories from victims, who say that they are belittled, disrespected, excluded, ignored, dehumanised and retraumatised by the Scottish criminal justice system.

Today’s motion refers to a new NHS report, “Trauma Informed Justice: A Knowledge and Skills Framework for Working with Victims and Witnesses”. Crime victims and witnesses told the researchers that they experienced trauma in the process of being a witness, that the criminal justice process worsened their trauma, which hampered their recovery and put their lives in limbo, and that—as Jamie Greene acknowledged—with the right support, they could have provided better evidence. Finally, they said that being a witness caused such distress that they would avoid reporting offences in the future. That final point is damning. It is a sobering report that confirms the existence of persistent issues.

I have been the victim of a serious crime. I know how casually thoughtless and infuriating the system can be. My attacker is in prison and in the process of seeking parole. Just a few weeks ago, however, I had an unusual and unsettling experience. A colleague answered my persistently ringing office phone here in Parliament. The caller was a criminal justice social worker who needed to speak to me urgently. She was preparing a home background report in anticipation of my attacker’s eventual release. She named my address and wanted me to confirm it. She also wanted to know details of my surgeries. However, it emerged that that information would be shared with my attacker. I was sufficiently concerned to consider that the call might be bogus, but it was real.

I am grateful to the social worker, who is doing a grand job in tough circumstances. However, I cannot help but suspect that the proactive approach that I experienced is not typical for every victim. I am all for transparency. Scotland’s parole process remains stubbornly shrouded in secrecy. Victims should be entitled to know exactly what is going on and their views must be heard. That should be a universal right, not one that is offered on an ad hoc, unofficial basis. It should be communicated clearly and cleanly.

I now turn to some of today’s other speakers. Pam Gosal, Meghan Gallacher, Rona Mackay and others spoke about the difficulties that are still being experienced, specifically by women and children. It is notable that 13 of the 15 speakers in today’s debate are women.

Jamie Greene’s amendment quite rightly challenges a worrying Scottish Government proposal around electronic monitoring. The Government’s Bail and Release from Custody (Scotland) Bill seeks to count two days that an accused person spends subject to electronic bail monitoring as one day off an eventual prison sentence. We believe that that is wrong. It conflates bail conditions with sentencing, although they are two fundamentally different things, and it is opposed by Victim Support Scotland.

We will support the Labour amendment, which raises several issues, not least the perpetual problem of court delays.

Today’s Government motion refers to more pending legislation—its Victims, Witnesses, and Justice Reform (Scotland) Bill. I am sure that Jamie Greene will be flattered that its name is so similar to that of his proposed victims bill. Angela Constance says that the tribute bill will put

“victims and witnesses at the heart of the justice system.”

We absolutely agree, and we will support the Government motion. However, I end on a note of caution: we have heard all this before. We need less talk and more action.

I call Angela Constance to wind up the debate. Cabinet secretary, it would be helpful if you could take us up to decision time.


Angela Constance

I start by thanking Dr Caroline Bruce and her team at NHS Education for Scotland for leading the work on the trauma-informed justice framework, because it is vital to the support for victims and witnesses, as well as to the staff who work in the justice system.

Most importantly, like Maggie Chapman, I pay tribute to victims, survivors and their families—those experts by experience who are informing every step of our journey to challenge and change our justice system, which, as most members have reflected in the debate, leaves victims feeling unheard. It can be an impenetrable system where access to information is difficult, and where victims often feel unsafe and that they are not treated with compassion.

Everybody seems to agree that, in the interests of embedding specialism and fairness and protecting balance, as well as serving the interests of justice, we need to do better and need to change.

I cannot support the Conservative amendment at decision time, simply because it pre-empts the two sessions on stage 2 of the Bail and Release from Custody (Scotland) Bill, which will take place tomorrow and next week. I suspect that Mr Greene probably knew that when he penned his amendment.

I say to Meghan Gallacher that, when you get to my age, you are always in a hurry, time and pace are always of the essence. I accept the remarks and concerns about court delays, because justice delayed is of course justice denied. That is why this year alone we are investing £26 million to help reduce the court backlogs. The backlog in trials has been reduced by a third, but much more needs to be done on solemn and High Court proceedings.

I also say to Jamie Greene and Pam Gosal that I will give their proposals a fair hearing when they are published. I have no reason not to be fair on that. I am sure that they will look at each and every piece of Government legislation to see how they can amend it to their own desires. For the first time, this Government has published end-to-end journey times, because I very firmly believe in transparency and shining a light on where more needs to be done.

I commend members for the range of issues that they have championed and raised in the debate. It is important that the debate about single-judge trials does not drown out debate on the other matters in victims, witnesses and justice reform, because the pilot is part of a much wider package.

Claire Baker raised a number of issues relating to the importance of clarity in setting out the case for specialist sexual offences courts and the wide-ranging approach that we will take to measurements and evaluations, whether that is for a pilot or for sexual offences courts. We will debate and discuss the detail of that in the months ahead. As usual—I am sure that Ms Baker will accept this—if I was to reply to every detailed point that she raised in her five minutes, I would probably be here for 90 minutes.

I am pleased to say that I can support the Labour Party’s amendment. As a former criminal justice social worker, I very much agree on the need to develop implementation and to co-operate with those who work at the coalface. I take engagement with all staff and all professions very seriously.

We propose, of course, an expansion of independent legal representation legislatively, and I am exploring wider provision in our discussions with the Emma Ritch law clinic.

Beatrice Wishart championed the bairns’ hoose movement, and Ruth Maguire made the link with other legislative measures that apply to our children and young people.

It is important that the debate on single-judge rape trials should not be drowned out at this stage. Rona Mackay made the point that it is important that we listen to all the voices and debate and discuss all the evidence. I very much intend to proceed in that vein.

The evidence on jurors’ preconceptions about rape and how they can be carried forward into deliberations and impact on verdicts is overwhelming. That is not the case with other serious crimes. In due course, I am sure that we will discuss and debate further the international evidence and the 50-plus studies, most of which have taken place in the past 20 years. The diversity of juries has not overcome unfair influences. We have seen that in independent Scottish jury research.

Jamie Greene

I appreciate that much of the focus is on the issue of juryless trials, but in Lady Dorrian’s recommendations she also made a number of very sensible suggestions about how outcomes could be improved in trials with juries. Will the Government introduce them as well as or instead of juryless trials?

Angela Constance

Jamie Greene has made a very important point. Because of the seriousness of sexual offending, we have to look at the justice journey from end to end. Many of the matters that are raised in Lady Dorrian’s review, some of which the judiciary are already taking forward, are not, of course, necessarily either/or matters. Every fibre of my instincts tells me that, if we want seismic systemic change, we need to bring all the potential solutions to the table, and we need to debate each and every potential solution in full.

I want to end with a quote from Lady Dorrian’s review. She reflected on an earlier report from the Scottish Law Commission, in 1983. She traced the developments in law, and she said:

“Despite some notable successes ... far too often the issues reported by complainers echo what was being said by complainers in sexual offence cases 20, 30 or even 40 years ago.”

She went on to say:

“Without profound reform there is a real possibility that our successors will be examining the same issues forty years hence.”

I make this pledge to members—not on my watch. Notwithstanding that we are at the start of a process with the Victims, Witnesses, and Justice Reform (Scotland) Bill and that that bill will inevitably look different at stage 3 from what it looks like at stage 1, we have to ensure that the bill is better and that it will take us forward, not back. We need to get to a place where there is no more hand wringing and an acknowledgement that no part of our justice system is too complex or too sacred for scrutiny. We need to bequeath something far better and far fairer to our daughters and sons.

It is time to have the courage to acknowledge problems where they exist, such as in the long-standing and significant disparity in conviction rates for rape in comparison with other offences. We need to own those problems and seek to solve them—even though, admittedly, there is no monopoly of wisdom. We need to have the courage to debate evidence. Terms such as “soft-touch” justice are soft in substance and drag down the debate that we all seek to have.

To those who oppose any aspect of the bill, my challenge is this: if not this, what? If not now, when? It is time to move forward in the debate and to do so together.

That concludes the debate.