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How to treat a child witness?

Topics Covered: Welfare schemes for vulnerable sections of the population by the Centre and States and the performance of these schemes; mechanisms, laws, institutions and bodies constituted for the protection and betterment of these vulnerable sections.

How to treat a child witness?

What to study?

For Prelims: Indian laws and International Conventions in this regard.

For Mains: Need for and significance of these laws, challenges in protection and ways to address them.

Context: In the Bidar school sedition case, spotlight has fallen on reports that police questioned children. What are the international conventions for questioning children? What do Indian laws say on this, and on child witnesses?

What’s the issue?

  1. The Karnataka State Commission for Protection of Child Rights has pulled up the district police for violations, including repeated questioning of the children.
  2. Additionally, a public interest petition has been filed in the Karnataka High Court seeking a departmental inquiry against the policemen who allegedly questioned the children of Shaheen School, aged between 9 and 12, without the consent of their parents or guardians, and also video-recorded them without consent.
  3. The PIL referred to a statement by the Shaheen Alumni Association to say that the children were questioned by policemen carrying guns, which created an “intimidating and fearful environment”.

The PIL has asked for guidelines to be issued to police regarding interrogation of minors in criminal proceedings in accordance with the Juvenile Justice Act and United Nations resolutions. 

What are the international conventions on children in these situations?

  1. Convention on the Rights of the Child since 1992 was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1989. As per the Convention, in all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.
  2. In 2009, the ‘United Nations: Justice in Matters involving Child Victims and Witnesses in Crime: Model Law’ provided a more specific set of guidelines in the context of child witnesses.  These guidelines recommend that authorities treat children in a caring and sensitive manner, with interview techniques that “minimise distress or trauma to children”.

How do Indian laws address the issue of child witnesses?

Under Section 118 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872, there is no minimum age for a witness.

Usually during a trial, the court, before recording the testimony of a child witness, determines his or her competency on the basis of their ability to give rational answers.

  • A child is usually asked questions like their name, the school they study in, and the names of their parents to determine their competency.
  • If the child is very young and does not understand the significance of taking an oath to speak the truth, the judge or the staff explain to the child that he or she should speak the truth, thinking of whichever God they believe in.

Cases involving children:

Trials involving children as witnesses have primarily been in cases of child sexual abuse. Other criminal cases where children are examined as witnesses have included those where a parent is the victim of violence at home, in the sole presence of the child.

What are the laws pertaining to the questioning of children?

The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015:

  • The Act’s very preamble says that a “child-friendly approach in the adjudication and disposal of matters in the best interest of children” must be adhered to.
  • It also requires that interviews of children be done by specialised units of police who are trained to sensitively deal with them.
  • The Act prescribes that a Special Juvenile Police Unit is to be constituted by the state government in each district and city, headed by a police officer not below the rank of Deputy Superintendent of Police, and including two social workers, at least one of whom must be a woman, and both of whom should be experienced in the field of child welfare.
  • Their work includes coordinating with the police towards sensitive treatment of children.
  • The Act also provides for a Child Welfare Committee in every district to take cognisance of any violations by the authorities in their handling of children.

 The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012:

  • It has specific guidelines regarding interviewing children as witnesses.
  • It states that interviews should be conducted in a safe, neutral, child-friendly environment, including allowing for them to be done at homes.
  • It says a child should not be made to recount the incident in question multiple times.
  • The Act also allows for a support person, who could be trained in counselling, to be present with the child to reduce stress and trauma.

Sources: Indian Express.