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Our honour, your honour

P Anima | Updated on January 12, 2018

Credit: Partha Pratim Sharma

BLink27_Teddy_bear   -  Shutterstock

Courting justice: Suzette Jordan’s struggle both in court and outside brought home the horrors that visit victims of sexual violence. Photo: Shriya Mohan

Courting justice: Suzette Jordan’s struggle both in court and outside brought home the horrors that visit victims of sexual violence. Photo: Shriya Mohan   -  The Hindu

Delhi now boasts no fewer than four child-friendly spaces for judicial trials. They are designed to ensure that young witnesses are protected, and not left vulnerable to trauma in courtrooms

The District Courts Dwarka, Delhi: An unhurried security-check zone contrasts the scramble beyond it. Young lawyers quietly peddle legal services, fathers and daughters walk together searching for the right courtroom, more lawyers huddle with clients in the passage, some dart down it with stacks of files, their gowns billowing behind them. Inside the newly-opened ‘vulnerable witness deposition complex’ (VWDC), it is markedly sterile and silent.

This courtroom doesn’t impose. Instead, it appears rather small. The court, presided by a judge, is flanked by two rooms. One is for the accused, who watches the proceedings through a glass partition. The victim or the witness, however, remains shielded in the other room. Among the principal functionaries in this courtroom are engineers. There are, in fact, two full-time engineers to manage the two courts in the VWDC. Unlike regular court hearings, much of the proceedings here are carried out through video links and sound systems. The judge watches and hears the victim and the accused — seated in two different rooms — on a big screen in the courtroom. Vulnerable witnesses — mostly minors, often victims of sexual offences — are accompanied by support persons. Queries to the victim are addressed to the support person through a headphone and he/she, in turn, explains it to the victim. The victim answers directly to the judge, without intermediaries, and is also heard by the accused. Any subsequent query from the defence lawyer is routed through the judge and the resource person.

Courtrooms are a daunting proposition, more so for victims of sexual violence. Innumerable films have portrayed the courtroom as a site of indignity and torment for victims of sexual violence. In this they have not been far off the mark, as was brought home starkly by the case of Suzette Jordan, the woman who refused to remain nameless as the ‘Park Street rape victim’. That Jordan was repeatedly asked to describe her rape in court by a defence looking for discrepancies has been widely reported. Delhi’s VWDCs are attempts at humanising the judiciary, at upturning its reputation for callousness. Delhi courts may still be some way from being sites of empowerment, but the VWDCs at least ensure they do not become sites of re-victimisation. They do so by isolating the agents of intimidation.

Deborah Patel, in her two years as social worker for the Counsel to Secure Justice, has represented and aided child victims of sexual offences in Delhi’s various courts. Of the six district courts in Delhi, four already have VWDCs. The other two — Rohini and Patiala House courts — will have them eventually.

Patel contrasts the relative calm in a VWDC with the chaos of testifying in a regular court. In an open court the child victim is separated from the accused by merely a foldable screen. “The realisation that the accused is right behind instils fear in them. Some of them break down after the testimony — at the thought of confronting the accused,” says Patel.

Patel has handled many traumatised children in court. But she distinctly remembers the 11-year-old girl who was abused by her uncle and was in the Rohini court to testify against him. Her father was no more. Her mother had remarried and the stepfather wanted no part in raising her. Adopted by her uncle, she was physically abused and later threatened by him. “Once she finished her testimony and we were getting ready to leave, she began to howl and refused to move out of the room. It took us about 10 minutes to pacify her, to assure her that the accused was not waiting outside. The judge, in this case, was sensitive towards the victim. But it is an overwhelming situation, particularly for a child,” says Patel.

Even structurally, the VWDCs are designed to prevent re-victimisation in the courtroom. The victim and the accused never meet. They arrive at the courtroom through separate entrances. Identification of the accused is done through video-conferencing. Emotionally, child victims fare much better in a VWDC, says Patel.

Waiting is as much a part of court proceedings as the hearings. In courts without the VWDC facility, child victims wait in the common area along with other adults. At the VWDCs, on the other hand, the wait becomes fairly tolerable, even comfortable to an extent. There are designated waiting areas for the victims and their support person — either a parent, sibling, facilitator, legal aid lawyer or any other person appointed by the court. Much care and research have gone into the design of this space — neutral, rather unremarkable, and yet comfortable, its purpose is to keep the victim or witness calm ahead of a deposition. The walls are bare — for images, too, can hurt, disturb or influence. The sofas are done up in muted tones. These small, yet significant touches are aiding the judiciary’s attempts to create a compassionate justice ecosystem.

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At the Dwarka court, officials show me the waiting room. Stuffed toys are lined on the carpet for the smaller children to play with. For the older ones, there are books on a shelf. A teenage girl — either a victim or a witness — waits with her older sister. She looks away when we enter.

The small kitchen in the complex is stacked with packets of biscuits and chips. The official yanks open the refrigerator to reveal rows of juice cartons and bottled water. If a hearing is scheduled around noon, arrangements for lunch are made, I’m told.

A day or two before a hearing, court officials get in touch with the family of the victim/ witness to remind them of the date and inform them about the cab facility the court provides.

Since the inauguration of the VWDC at Dwarka District Court in February, 87 witnesses — all minors — have deposed there. Only 52 used the court-provided cab facility. Though the cab has no identifiable markers, some families have declined to use it. As they are deposing in a sexual abuse case, they are anxious to do it discreetly.

***

In the Capital, crimes against children are at a whopping high — at 166.9 crimes for every one lakh children (according to the National Crime Records Bureau), it is eight times the national average. It is perhaps fitting then that Delhi is the only State that has taken concerted steps to handle these cases sensitively. And it has Justice Gita Mittal, acting chief justice of the Delhi High Court, to thank for much of it. None of the stakeholders fail to mention her role in getting the VWDCs in place, as also the Delhi HC’s ‘Guidelines for Recording the Evidence of Vulnerable Witnesses in Criminal Matters’.

A case frequently footnoted in these guidelines is the 2009 Virender vs State of NCT Delhi, involving child sexual abuse. In the judgment, Justice Mittal culls out the directions and guidelines for different agencies, especially the police, that were laid down by the apex court and Delhi HC at various points in time in cases involving a child victim.

The compact set of guidelines issued later by the Delhi HC for recording vulnerable witnesses draws from the best practices worldwide. The concept of a waiting room with toys and books comes from New Zealand. It identifies the formality of court procedures, including the formal dress of judicial officers, as a cause of stress for child witnesses from the recommendations made to the US Department of Justice. At the VWDC, judges do not appear in uniforms.

The first VWDC in Delhi was set up in 2012, incorporating the infrastructure recommended by the guidelines. The project received no budgetary allocation, and it had to contend with the space constraints in courts. Yet, it did take off after a courtroom in the Karkardooma District Court Complex was dedicated for vulnerable witnesses. Over the next five years, more VWDCs came up — in Saket, Tiz Hazari and, now, Dwarka.

The definition of ‘vulnerable witnesses’, meanwhile, has expanded beyond child witnesses under 18 to include victims and witnesses in cases involving sexual offence and other dangerous crimes. At the inauguration of the VWDC at Dwarka, Justice Mittal invoked the case of Suzette Jordan and her experiences in the court as a victim of sexual violence. “Suzette’s is just one category of victims. Imagine a Suzette who is aged five or six or eight or 13. The court justice system was not designed with children in mind,” Justice Mittal had said in her speech, which is available online.

***

At the end of the day, the VWDC as an institution remains just that — an institution. The real work, however, belongs to the judiciary as well as the key agencies aiding the delivery of justice. If they remain insensitive, the whole purpose will be defeated. “Training and sensitisation programmes are being held since 2012. Judges, prosecutors and police officials have been part of our ‘Making courtroom practices responsive towards victims of sexual violence’ programme, and it aims to cover every judicial officer in Delhi,” says Dinesh Kumar Sharma, registrar general of Delhi HC.

As a guest faculty at judicial academies, Michelle Mendonca often conducts sensitisation programmes for judges. She is also the project director of Counsel to Secure Justice, an NGO that works with child victims of sexual abuse. Time and again, she reminds the judges of the need to deal empathetically with the testimony of a child. As she explains, “The courts are used to dealing with adult witnesses. But evidence of children is never going to be perfect. Unequals should not be treated equally.”

In her training programmes, Mendonca often conducts a small test — one that never fails to shock the judges. She divides the judges into groups of two and asks them to exchange personal details — the college they attended, the professor who taught them a particular subject... and... their first sexual encounter. “The last part would stun them. But that is what a victim of sexual abuse has to go through in a courtroom. It helps build a sense of empathy,” she says.

Agencies dealing with child sexual abuse cases acknowledge the VWDC’s vital role in reducing the trauma faced by the young victims during the trial proceedings. Bharti Ali, co-founder and co-director of the Delhi-based HAQ – Centre for Child Rights, represents at least 300 cases of child abuse assigned by the Child Welfare Committee. “The mother of a four-year-old told me how her child went to testify holding the teddy bear she was playing with,” says Ali

***

Not just the young ones, the VWDCs are proving a boon to vulnerable witnesses of all ages. Recently, Ali was the support person for a child who had been sexually abused by her father. While the child, of course, testified at the VWDC, the facility was extended to the mother too. “The mother didn’t want to testify in open court. She was scared of testifying against her husband. The court allowed her to depose at the VWDC,” says Ali.

Meanwhile, Delhi’s vulnerable witness protection programme is constantly evolving, based on feedback from the people and agencies engaging with it. Ali remembers how the VWDC initially had a television in the waiting room. But when that was found to be more of a distraction, it was eventually removed.

Stakeholders call for emulating the Delhi example in more places. In Child-Friendly Justice: A Quarter of a Century of the UN Convention on the Rights of a Child, theauthors mention the “free and informal” special children’s courts of Goa where “the president does not wear a black coat or a gown and advocates and police appear in civilian dress”. Ali says Karnataka is set to soon have its own system to protect vulnerable witnesses. Jharkhand, too, may be on its way. Delhi’s VWDCs, she says, attract a lot of visitors from other States who want to learn from the model created by Justice Mittal.

While the Capital basks in this rightfully earned glory, Mendonca offers a quick reality check: The bottom line remains the need for speedier trials and more special courts dealing exclusively with child sex abuse. But even she concedes that “there is no greater relief than to watch a child coming out of a testimony smiling”. It has taken significant judicial initiative to bring on that smile.

Published on May 26, 2017

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