Here’s why we must put victims and witnesses at the heart of our justice system

Yesterday, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Home Affairs and I met with victims, witnesses and their advocates to discuss the introduction of our Victims, Witnesses and Justice Reform Bill.

It is no exaggeration to say this Bill is among the most bold and ambitious pieces of legislation that will be considered by the Scottish Parliament, putting victims at the heart of the justice system.

Hearing from survivors of rape and families bereaved by crime yesterday was hugely moving and I continue to be amazed by their courage, persistence and determination.

The Bill is a testament to the many years of campaigning from them as well as extensive engagement, consultation and evidence gathering.

When I was Justice Secretary, I heard first-hand about the changes we needed to make to our justice system to strengthen victims’ rights and improve the experience people have when accessing justice.

It was as a result of that feedback that I set up the Victims Taskforce in 2018. Its work and the new Victims Advisory Board has helped shape the government’s approach to justice reform ever since.

Our Bill takes this further by proposing to establish a Victims and Witnesses Commissioner, and embedding trauma-informed practice across our justice agencies – so that victims and witnesses aren’t re-traumatised discussing their experience.

Along with Lady Dorrian’s review on improving the Management of Sexual Offence Cases and our wider engagement with victims, survivors, their advocates and the legal profession, this Bill is designed to ensure that victims are treated with greater compassion and their voices are heard.

To address long-standing challenges for survivors of sexual offences such as rape, the Bill will create a special sexual offences court, enable a pilot of single judge trials, and ensure complainers have a right to lifelong anonymity, and in some cases, free legal representation.

The Bill also proposes to modernise and ensure greater confidence in the justice system – by abolishing the not proven verdict and reducing the number of jurors, while increasing the majority required for conviction.

The level of change we’re proposing is significant, balanced and robust after much engagement and consultation.

This Bill marks a landmark in the history of justice reform and I’m confident that it will improve the experience of people seeking justice – particularly women and girls – for decades to come.

This article was originally published in the Daily Record.