KOCHI: In an attempt to provide vulnerable witnesses a safe and conducive environment to testify fearlessly during a criminal trial, the Kerala High Court will set up Vulnerable Witnesses Deposition Centres at all courts in the state. The Supreme Court, in a directive issued in January, had asked all high courts to set up the centre.
Vulnerable witnesses include a child below the age of 18, and age and gender-neutral survivors of sexual assault. The centres will have comfort items such as stuffed toys, blankets or books for the child survivors to reduce their mental pressure and trauma, according to the guidelines issued by the High Court. There will also be a live link, like audio-video electronic means, to avoid the witnesses’ physical presence and thus their face-to-face contact with the accused.
The guidelines insist on setting up waiting rooms, which should be used only by the vulnerable witnesses and their non-offending family members and support persons. The waiting area too has to be equipped with toys, books, games, drawing and painting material, TV, etc, which can help lower the anxiety of witnesses. The approach to the waiting area shall be in such a way that it allows the witnesses to access it with ease and without having to confront other litigants, police or the accused and their associates.
HC: Care should be taken to avoid witnesses’ exposure to accused
The waiting area needs to be equipped with a digital ‘ case number display monitor’ that shows the case being called in the court. “Arrangements for vulnerable witness to depose from the waiting area, which may include monitors and screens for recording the evidence of the child shall be made available,” said the guideline.
The vulnerable witness shall be allowed a pre-trial courthouse tour or tour of the civil court or Juvenile Justice Board, etc along with the support persons or paralegal volunteer to enable the witnesses to familiarise themselves with the layout.
This will also help witnesses familiarise the location of the accused in the dock, the roles of court officials and where they sit and who else might be in the court. The witness can have a discussion of any fears including concerns regarding safety in relation to the accused, with the support of a person, prosecutors and the judge to dispel the fear, trauma and anxiety in connection with the upcoming deposition.In the case of a survivor of a sexual offence, care should be taken to avoid their exposure to the accused at the time of recording evidence.
If the child survivor or witness refuses to give testimony in the presence of the accused or if circumstances show that the child may be inhibited from speaking freely in that person’s presence, the court should give orders to temporarily remove the accused from the courtroom to an adjacent room with a video link or one-way mirror visibility into the courtroom