Set up centres for vulnerable victims under all High Courts

Court At least two must be set up in the jurisdiction of every High Court within 3 months.

Vulnerable witnesses in criminal cases, often minor survivors of rape or victims of sex abuse, should testify without fear or intimidation in a conducive environment, the Supreme Court has said.

Concerned at the trauma these victims of crime face in conventional courtrooms, the Supreme Court has ordered the setting up of at least two vulnerable witnesses deposition centres in the jurisdiction of every High Court across the country within the next three months. The order upholds the right of vulnerable witnesses to be protected while testifying in court and is in consonance with international norms in these matters.

A Bench of Justices A.K. Goel and U.U. Lalit found that vulnerable witnesses are often treated like any other witness of the State in a criminal trial. Victims often end up being ill-treated by the very system they had approached in the hope of justice. Delay and intimidating questions during trial in a hostile environment lead to fewer convictions.

Setting aside the acquittal by the high court of a child rapist, the Bench acknowledged the arguments for more vulnerable witness deposition complexes across the country made by its amicus in the case, advocate Shirin Khajuria.

The Bench said eventually every district should have a special centre, which would provide vulnerable witnesses a friendly atmosphere to testify. The Supreme Court referred to the Delhi High Court’s initiative to set up vulnerable witnesses deposition centres and issuance of guidelines.

The Bench suggested that other high courts should adopt the Delhi HC’s ‘Guidelines for Recording the Evidence of Vulnerable Witnesses in Criminal Matters,’ with required modifications. The Delhi HC’s guidelines are filtered from the best practices followed by other countries and the police and precedents of the apex court and high courts.

The practices include a screen or some arrangement by which the victim does not see the body or face of the accused; reducing cross-examination questions to writing and handing them over to the judge to be put to the victim in a language that is clear and not embarrassing; and sufficient breaks for victims of child abuse or rape while testifying.

The Supreme Court recommended that the high courts trigger the initiative with at least two centres in the next three months. But they must not stop with that and continue to set up more such centres for vulnerable witnesses.

The court noted that there were four special centres for vulnerable witnesses in Delhi. “Such centres ought to be set up with all necessary safeguards,” the Supreme Court observed.

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