For some children, it can be as traumatic as the experience itself.
Youngsters who are victims or witnesses to serious crimes may be forced to relive harrowing details in court or face repeated interviews by police.
Social work leaders say the impact on children was not well considered, while courts reported having to discount more evidence than they were using.
Police say a new approach could see Scotland set the standard internationally in the treatment of children providing evidence in some of the most serious High Court cases.
Social workers and police are being given intensive training in interview techniques which aim to ensure more evidence can be collected and recorded in advance, outwith the austere court environment and ideally during a single session.
The Vulnerable Witnesses (Criminal Evidence) Scotland Act 2019 created a new rule that child witnesses under 18 should be permitted to give pre-recorded evidence in the most serious cases.
While the results of a pilot in Lanarkshire are yet to be evaluated, the new social-work led approach is said to have led to a significant rise in disclosures that could provide key evidence in forthcoming trials, ultimately improving conviction rates.
Crucially, the feedback from children themselves has been positive. One police officer said a child was so comfortable during the interview process, they didn’t want to leave the room.
Research shows that children and young people provide best evidence when they are encouraged to provide a free narrative account of their experiences, rather than a direct question and answer approach.
Ben Farrugia, director of Social Work Scotland, said: “We have had a system in place in Scotland for a couple of decades.
“The feedback from the courts was that they were having to discount a lot more of the evidence than they were using and we weren’t really paying attention to the experiences of the child.
“We weren’t getting the chance to take their evidence through video recording and play it in court.
“The child had to potentially be re-traumatised by giving their evidence directly to the jury.
“So through a process of review but also reflection, we completely re-evaluated how we approach this critical process in our criminal justice and child protection system.”
The potentially negative impact of poor interview practice in child protection investigations, such as leading questions and interviewer bias, was illustrated in 1990, when 16 Orkney children were removed from their families amidst concerns over organised sexual abuse
Lord Clyde’s report raised serious concerns over interview practices by police officers and social workers and developments in Scotland since then have focused on finding techniques which enable children and young people to provide best evidence.
Lorrette Nicol, a child protection lead, who helped devise the new training programme, said some children required “more scaffolding” that others during the interview process but the ideal approach allows the young interviewee to lead the conversation.
“The best evidence is secured through free narrative recall where the child recounts their experiences in their own words.
“What we really want to see – if it was a pie chart – is that a tiny wedge is the interviewer speaking.
“If a child is talking about something we will often echo what they say.
“If they say “my dad hit me” and later on the interviewer says, “ you said your dad punched you”, that’s leading because it’s not echoing exactly what the child has said. You are making assumptions.
“Some interviewers are going into the interview with information gathered from other sources and it’s about putting that aside because sometimes children and young people come to interviews about one thing but we might not know about the most significant thing yet, so you have to go in with a completely open mind.”
The methods take inspiration from a system used in some Scandinavian countries – the Barnhaus model – which is a child-centred response for children who are victims or witnesses of serious crime and abuse.
A key principle is that children should only be asked to give evidence once within a therapeutic environment.
A new graduate diploma level training course has been devised by child protection leaders and police with input from the Crown Office, which said several cases had already taken place using video evidence.
Training is now being rolled out to police and social workers in Glasgow as a result of a £2 million funding package from the Scottish Government which aims to cover all of Scotland by 2024. The new methods will continue to be evaluated and refined.
Judi Heaton, Assistant Chief Constable of Police Scotland, said: “We are hoping that because we are getting more detail it’s going to lead to more convictions.”
Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans Keith Brown said: “The new Scottish Child Interview Model will deliver an interview process that secures the child’s best evidence at the earliest opportunity and minimises the risk of further traumatisation.”