Introduction of the Vulnerable Witness: – Minors who are under the age of 18 and who are not able to testify or provide evidence in court due to additional challenges such as mental illnesses, physical disabilities, or an inability to cope due to IQ deficits. These individuals are known as Vulnerable Witnesses.
Moreover, they covered the groups of witnesses with mental illnesses, those who perceived a threat to themselves or others, and victims of sexual abuse of any age or gender. 2018 Witness Protection Scheme of the Union Government now includes these categories.
Definition of the Vulnerable Witness
The Supreme Court broadened the concept of a “vulnerable witness” to, for the first time, include people who testify in civil proceedings, such as family disputes, as well as cases heard by Juvenile Justice Boards (JJBs), which involve runaway and delinquent adolescents.
The definition, according to the document, should cover not only people under the age of 18 but also sexual assault victims of either gender, people with mental illnesses, people who perceive threats in witnesses, and people who are deaf or have any other impairment.
Guidelines for dealing with vulnerable witnesses
Model guidelines for the use of VWDCs in the justice system were also developed by the Justice Mittal committee and sent to all the H.C for assessment and consideration.
The recommendations provide the requisite “framework” to courts in order to encourage a sensitive response of the legal system to the vulnerable witness as well as empower compliance with the top court’s directions.
The model guidelines provide for periodic reviews of their actual implementation by individual research bodies, reputable academic institutions & universities, or multidisciplinary committees formed for this purpose. They also provide a dynamic and changing framework for helping to ensure a fair system as well as justice for vulnerable witnesses.
Other criteria include allowing vulnerable witnesses to testify in-camera, providing them “comfort things“, and establishing a pre-trial court visit for them to become acquainted with the environment, the fundamental goal of adjudication, and the duties of court authorities.
The guidelines also specify the number of things the court must take into account before identifying a witness as vulnerable.
Numerous depositions by a witness, inability to speak in a cognitively appropriate manner, anxiety over accusations from the accused, fear of being exposed in public, protracted court cases, lack of understanding of court procedures, and ambiguity and guilt regarding giving testimony against the member of the family or relative, feel anxious about being screamed at, mocked, or get humiliated are some possible factors that could cause stress to a witness and prevent them from being able to depose appropriately.
The recommendations specify that assistance from a support person should be given to a vulnerable witness, especially in situations involving the sexual assault of children. The vulnerable witness must choose the support person. The support person may only offer emotional support; they are not permitted to direct, persuade, tutor, or mislead the witness.
The guidelines also address how a vulnerable witness may be questioned or interrogated. The court, in accordance with the rules, shall ensure that inquiries are maintained clear and expressed in a manner suited to the understanding and ability levels of the vulnerable witness in order to ensure that the truth is revealed.
Courts must prevent time wastage by rejecting inquiries that they deem objectionable, irrelevant to the case, repetitive, or written in a manner that is difficult for the witness to understand. The guidelines specify that questioning should only be directed at the child victim through the court in cases that involve sexual offenses against child victims.
Video or audio recordings of a vulnerable witness must be destroyed in accordance with the guidelines issued by the relevant high court.
Case laws – Vulnerable Witness
Smruti Tukaram Badade v. the State of Maharashtra and Anr, 2019
In this SLP instance, the petition for leave was allowed, and the appeal was disposed of in accordance with the signed order. The word “vulnerable witness,” as defined orally by S.C, may not just refer to witnesses who are juveniles.
State of Maharashtra v. Bandu, 2018
In this instance, the respondent, Bandu, is accused of raping the victim, a 14-year-old girl who is deaf and dumb. Due to the victim’s lack of cross-examination, the High Court overturned the respondent’s conviction. The victim was not cross-examined, but the Apex Court determined that there was sufficient evidence to establish that the respondent sexually assaulted her.
After granting its Order, the court considered a request that specific examination facilities for vulnerable witnesses should be established in order to ensure their comfort as they provide testimony. The Court insisted on the formation of centers for the deposition of vulnerable witnesses and further inquired about their status.
Zahira Habibullah Sheikh & Anr v. State of Gujarat & Ors, 2006
The Supreme Court ruled that a witness must not be coerced or pressured into providing false testimony. The trial would not be regarded as fair if it were conducted in this manner. This concept was developed primarily for the alleged perpetrator in a case. Consequently, the accused should be able to question any number of witnesses at a trial in order to ensure fairness.
For witnesses, getting over barriers and providing testimony on a specific case is not always easy. Even when they make an effort to prevail, there are those who attempt to coerce and threaten them into closing the case, conceiving the truth, etc.
When it comes to providing the majority of the case’s evidence, vulnerable witnesses often play a significant role. However, the term does not just apply to child witnesses; it can also refer to adults with mental disabilities, for example. The majority of people are frequently confused, vulnerable witnesses.
Our society’s vulnerable witnesses are more likely to experience such agony because they are targeted and are simple targets for manipulation. Therefore, it is our duty to support them while they face challenges since their resolve to overcome them could result in the accused being imprisoned.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q. What is the Center for Vulnerable Witness Depositions?
Ans. Based on threat assessments and safety precautions, the Vulnerable Witness Deposition Scheme seeks to protect vulnerable witnesses.
Q. What is an age-neutral victim?
Ans. The Supreme Court issued a significant court decision that broadened the definition of “vulnerable witness” in criminal cases, which had previously only applied to children under the age of 18. This new definition now encompasses all victims of sexual assault, regardless of age or gender, as well as witnesses who have mental illnesses.
Q. What prevents witnesses from providing evidence?
Ans. Extreme elderly age. Illness of the mind or body that makes it impossible for the person to understand the questions as well as provide a meaningful reply. Any other factors, such as being unconscious, intoxicated, experiencing severe physical discomfort, etc.