Why Scotland needs Specialist Sexual Offences Courts
Last week, the Scottish Government published the Victims, Witnesses, and Justice Reform (Scotland) Bill which seeks to improve survivors’ access to and experiences of the criminal justice system. If passed, this Bill will introduce a Specialist Sexual Offence Court, among several other potentially transformative proposals.
Why do sexual crimes need a specialist court?
The current criminal justice system is failing victims of sexual crimes. We often hear from survivors that the process of seeking justice - and in particular their experience in court - is at least as traumatic as the attack(s) itself.
Unacceptable court delays – made worse by COVID - have left survivors waiting for up to four years to reach court, with many feeling that their lives are on hold, unable to move on until the process has concluded. Some even delay seeking counselling or medical treatment through fear these records will be used against them in court.
When survivors do reach court, they are subject to unnecessary distress and trauma resulting from floating trial diets, non-trauma-informed evidence gathering procedures, and the layout and facilities in court buildings. Survivors have also told us about the huge impact on their wellbeing of how they have been treated in court. This treatment comes from a lack of awareness and sensitivity to their needs and experience, from legal professionals and the justice system at large.
We know that seeking justice for sexual violence will never be easy, but it patently does not need to be this hard.
How would a specialist court help?
The Bill proposes a court with stand-alone rules and procedures designed to support a specialist, trauma-informed approach
This proposal comes from a recommendation made in the 2021 Report on Improving the Management of Sexual Offence Cases, by a cross-justice Review Group chaired by Lord Justice Clerk Lady Dorrian.
Features of the proposed court include
- Pre-recorded evidence for rape complainers
- Mandatory specialist training for all legal professionals
- Full sentencing powers
- The accused cannot conduct their own case if a witness will be giving evidence at the trial
As well as reducing trauma, the proposed court would likely lead to significantly reduced court delays, as has been the case for similar courts in South Africa and New Zealand.
What other measures should be taken?
We welcome the Bill’s introduction of a new court. But there is more the Scottish Government could do to make these courts as effective as possible for survivors:
- Dedicated advocacy and court support for all complainers provided by Rape Crisis Advocacy Workers
- Fixed trial dates
- Separate entrances and waiting areas for the survivor and their family and the accused. Survivors have spoken of the fear of seeing the accused, or his family, at court and many reported that this has happened to them.
- A protected area where the survivor and their family can watch proceedings. All survivors we consulted felt that a private viewing gallery or a live stream would be the best options.
We urge the Scottish Parliament to pass this Bill and support the creation of this court. This is a real chance to redesign a justice system that treats survivors fairly and compassionately.
If you are a survivor who would like to give your views on this issue, or other issues concerning the Victims, Witnesses, and Justice Reform (Scotland) Bill, you can get in touch with us here.
To find out more about advocacy, visit our website here or read our blog on what Advocacy Workers want survivors to know here.
You are not alone. If you are looking for support, please contact our helpline, open from 5pm-midnight, every night.
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