Welcome order for vulnerable witnesses

Welcome order for vulnerable witnesses

The Supreme Court's directive that special deposition centres should be set up for vulnerable witnesses in each high court's jurisdiction is a welcome initiative intended to create a safe, enabling and protective environment for them during trials and court hearings. The court wants at least two such centres to be set up within three months in every state. It has stipulated the number and even given a deadline probably because some similar initiatives were not seriously followed up in the past. At present, the facility is intended for children who are rape survivors or victims of sex abuse. The atmosphere in the court is usually intimidating for a child. The procedures and the manner of questioning often sap or damage a child's ability to speak and the culprit sometimes gets away. Victims are often ill-treated. The experience, which is traumatic, badly impacts the child's mind also and becomes secondary victimisation.    

 There are four such deposition centres in Delhi, and the court decided that there should be more of them in all states. It also commended the Delhi high court's guidelines on the matter, which follow international norms and provisions in laws relating to protection of children from sexual offences. The law prescribes that officers who record children's statements should not be in uniform and the children should not be exposed to the accused. The guidelines demand that the atmosphere should be friendly and state that "each witness is unique" and should therefore be handled accordingly. They describe the processes by which the witness is to be assessed for competence and age, given support persons and comfort objects and insist that questions be framed clearly, without shaming the witness. The Supreme Court has endorsed these guidelines, which are sensitive to the child's needs and state of mind without compromising the demands of justice.

The court's directive was issued in a case in which it set aside the acquittal of a person who was accused of raping a speech and hearing-impaired girl. It asserts and seeks to protect the rights of children in special situations. Though only children are covered by the directive now, it can later be extended to cover other vulnerable witnesses, like differently-abled persons, women who are victims of sexual assaults, and whistle-blowers. The court has said that it wants special deposition centres to be set up in all districts in due course. That will help hundreds of witnesses who are now vulnerable to threats and other dangers. Judicial processes will also be further strengthened by clearer, better and more reliable depositions. This is a welcome directive and states and high courts must establish these deposition centres without delay.

 

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