Behind the headlines

The crackdown on antisocial behaviour sounded familiar, but the
Scottish executive’s new legislative programme generally
continues to pursue a more liberal agenda than its Westminster
counterpart. Among the measures announced last week by first
minister Jack McConnell was a vulnerable witnesses bill, which is
likely to result in wide-ranging improvements for children and
vulnerable adults, including people with learning difficulties,
giving evidence in court. The way in which vulnerable witnesses are
categorised will be revised and will include a wide discretionary
category. In a move welcomed by learning difficulties campaigners
the competence test, the method for sifting out people deemed
incapable of giving evidence because they are allegedly unable to
tell the difference between truth and lies, will be abolished. It
is a move likely to result in much more thought being given to the
support people with learning difficulties and children need in
order to give evidence successfully and may make it less probable
that the guilty go free where crimes have been committed against
vulnerable people.

Karen Squillino, primary prevention co-ordinator,

“Abolishing the competence test is a step forward for Scotland in
the recognition of the rights of oppressed groups. The rest of the
UK should follow suit as vulnerable people should be supported in
giving evidence that may lead to a conviction. Currently the
decision as to whether someone gives evidence lies with the judge
in the case. Surely it is unfair that such a decision lies with one
person. Social workers should be offered specialist training to
support people in court to ensure that vulnerable people can
participate fully in the criminal justice process.”

Felicity Collier, chief executive, Baaf Adoption and

“The Scottish executive has outlined some interesting plans for
their forthcoming legislation – it will be exciting indeed if one
of the spin-offs of devolution is new rights for vulnerable
witnesses across the UK. There have been some instances of children
and adults being denied the opportunity to put their evidence,
resulting in a denial of justice for the victims. There is more to
be done but let us congratulate Scotland on leading the way.”

Bob Hudson, principal research fellow, Nuffield Institute
for Health, University of Leeds

“Valuing People, based on the four key principles of civil rights,
independence, choice and inclusion, commands wide support, yet the
legal system often seems untouched by it. The Scottish initiative
is a welcome attempt to correct this isolationism. As in the case
with the funding of long-term care, the Scots are showing
themselves to have the sort of progressive social policies many
would have expected from the New Labour government.”

Martin Green, chief executive, Counsel and Care for the

“In general, the move towards changing the way people with learning
difficulties are treated by the courts is welcome. There is a need
for a more supportive approach to witnesses and victims, but
particularly for those with special needs. However, there must be
clear safeguards that ensure that witnesses are representing the
true situation and not being influenced by the people who are there
to support them. I hope that the issue will be reviewed in England,
but we have to accept that one of the consequences of devolution is
that we will increasingly see different laws and approaches in
different parts of the UK.”

Bill Badham, development officer, National Youth
“Doing away with the competence test is welcome news,
which should be followed across the UK, but it must be linked to
comprehensive services for supporting vulnerable or intimidated
witnesses before, during and after a case. Much can be learned from
the pioneering child witness support schemes on the need for
interagency working, including with police, lawyers, and the Crown
Prosecution Service to ensure support is not seen as coaching, thus
undermining investigation or prosecution.”

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.