On Tuesday 21st November we hosted a reception at the Scottish Parliament to share our work opening Scotland’s first Bairns Hoose with partners.
This was a significant milestone in the collective effort to ensure that Scotland’s care, protection and justice systems do not cause further trauma to children and young people. Bairns Hoose offers hope, healing and recovery.
We were honoured to welcome Lady Dorrian, Lord Justice Clerk to share her reflections at the event, and you can read her inspirational speech below:
It is now ten years since the Lord President initiated the Evidence and Procedure Review, with a view to reforming outdated trial procedures which operated in our jurisdiction to the detriment of children and other vulnerable witnesses. It was increasingly clear during the process of the review that the system did not operate to the benefit of children and other vulnerable witnesses. Many children became re-traumatised by the very system that was trying to help them. The evidence painted an alarming picture. For example, the 5-year old child who spent several hours over the course of 2 days in the witness box, speaking to an incident which occurred a year earlier. Little wonder that Children 1st reports a 9-year old describing the experience of being in court as “somewhere broken when you already feel broken”.
The courtroom is not a child-friendly place, and no matter the steps to try to make the child at ease – introductions; removing wigs; clearing the court- it never can be. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that standing in a room of strangers, being asked questions by various people possibly looking like something from your history books, using elaborate language, double negatives, and the like, could add to or exacerbate a child’s trauma. This is why the earliest focus of the EPR was on taking children out of the courtroom entirely, capturing their evidence on video ahead of the trial, with questioning carefully controlled in ways designed to prevent further traumatisation, and generally putting their interests at the heart of the process.
There were two main recommendations of the Review. A long term one, of introducing a Barnehus-type system, of the kind pioneered in Iceland and adopted by other Nordic countries. That was the gold standard: a one-stop shop to address all the child’s needs. The second, shorter term aim, was that, until it became feasible to introduce a Barnehus system, there should be a wholesale adoption of pre-recording the evidence of children, extended in due course as time, costs, and facilities allowed, to other vulnerable witnesses.
At the time of the initial EPR report, this had actually been possible under the relevant legislation for about 8 years, but it had hardly been used. It would be a very good year if we managed a dozen commissions to take the evidence of children or other vulnerable witnesses: now we achieve about 700 year, and the number is growing all the time. The catalyst for this change was the EPR which led to the High Court Practice Note No. 1 of 2017, which provided for greater use of commissions, and gave guidance about all matters to be considered in enabling and encouraging these. In due course the Vulnerable Witnesses (Criminal Evidence) (Scotland) Act 2019 gave statutory effect to what was by then a practical reality, and strengthened it by creating a legal presumption that child witnesses in the High Court would have their evidence pre-recorded in advance of trial.
The long-term aim remained that children should be removed from the courtroom setting. The Review group visited the Barnehus in Oslo. This was an outstanding facility. The vision of the EPR was that in Scotland we should develop a full Barnehus, with all facilities under one roof, well equipped to provide a non-threatening and reassuring atmosphere, in a non-institutional setting. In our report we noted that as well as the benefits for interviewing and recording the children, the facility provided a “wrap-around service” so that therapeutic and medical support could be instantly accessed, making the experience less traumatic. It was essentially a one-stop shop with immediate access to medical, child protection and welfare services.
It is utterly marvellous to see this vision starting to become real, thanks to the tremendous work of Mary Glasgow, the rest of the team at Children 1st and their partners. Their hard work, determination, and phenomenal fundraising efforts have ensured that these aspirations have become a reality. It has not been an easy process, and private fundraising was not only crucial to its creation, I am given to understand that it will be vital to its continued operation. Having visited the first Scottish Bairns Hoose only a couple of weeks ago, I can personally say that it is a fantastic facility. It is clear that a great deal of thought has been put into every intricate detail of the layout. It seems to me that it is a model of what a Bairns Hoose should be.
It is important though, to note that we have not crossed the finish line: there is still work to be done. The full-range of facilities at the Hoose has yet to be embraced, including the physical examination suite, in order to ensure the full Barnehus experience – the wraparound service, the one-stop shop which was referred to in the EPR and which is an intrinsic part of the Barnehus movement. This is really important, and it is vital to understand that the rationale for moving medical examinations to the Hoose is precisely the same as that for moving interviews from the police station. A child will obviously feel less conformable in an institutionalised setting, whether it be a police station, a court or a health centre. That brings the sensation of being part of something beyond their control, outwith their comfort zone, part of a bureaucratic and faceless process, all of which would be greatly increased by the institutionalised setting. There is an immense value in having the entirety of this traumatic process within the same calming environment, developed wholly with the child’s needs at the epicentre.
The adoption of the best and most suitable model, as the experience of this first Hoose has shown, is not an easy or a cheap process. In the EPR of 2013 we recognised that the costs involved with developing such a system in Scotland, militated against its adoption in the short term. That’s why we devoted so much time to evidence by commission as providing real benefit in the short and medium term.
It is encouraging therefore that the Scottish Government has committed funding to the Bairns Hoose project. Multi-agency partnerships in Fife, Aberdeenshire, Aberdeen City, Tayside and the Outer Hebrides have been awarded funding from the Scottish Government’s Pathfinder fund. Developing the facilities and necessary infrastructure will take effort and expense, but the benefits it will bring to our system as a whole and to the individual experiences of children involved in it will be well worth it.
Training of staff will be crucial, but not only for those who will be operating the system. From the outset, all of those involved in the project – whether relating to acquisition, adaptation, design, development or planned use of the Hoose - must have a real understanding of the concept even before they start. I have not the slightest hesitation in saying this. Within this room will be those who are involved in helping to establish Bairns Hooses in other parts of Scotland. I beg you- please visit the existing Bairn’s Hoose: if you think, for example, that the concept can be applied by converting an old office; or an old health centre; please think again. A visit to the Bairn’s Hoose will enable you to realise why this is so not the concept of a Barnehus. Divesting the place of any notion of institutionalism is crucial; going to the new Bairns Hoose is like going to visit your granny. It is important that the model is not diluted as it extends across our jurisdiction. We must be willing to rid ourselves of preconceived notions, of prior ways of working, of our own convenience: none of these matter compared with the individual needs of each child unfortunate enough to require the services of a Bairns Hoose.
The Bairns Hoose is an amazing facility; it is well designed; calm, and non- threatening; thought seems to have been given to every aspect of the child’s journey. It is absolutely fantastic, then years from the 1st EPR, so see this concept finally take shape in Scotland. Those who drove its development by their enthusiasm, tenacity, and sheer hard work have done the whole nation a service.
 Scottish Court Service, “Evidence and Procedure Review Report” (March 2015), accessible at: evidence-and-procedure-full-report---publication-version-pdf.pdf (scotcourts.gov.uk).
 Evidence and Procedure Review Report, para 1.22.
 Section 2, amending the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1995 and inserting section 271BZA.
 Victim Support Scotland, the University of Edinburgh and Children England.
 Ibid, para 2.106.
 Scottish Government, “Next Step for Bairns’ Hoose”, 24 October 2023, accessible at: Next steps for Bairns’ Hoose - gov.scot (www.gov.scot).