Protecting Vulnerable Witnesses: SC | 12 Jan 2022

For Prelims: Vulnerable Witness Deposition Centre (VWDC) scheme, Article 21 (Right to Life), Article 141/142 of the Constitution of India.

For Mains: Witness Protection in India, Alternate Dispute Resolution (ADR), Vulnerable Witness Deposition Centre, section 377 IPC, Mental Healthcare Act, 2017

Why in News

Recently, the Supreme Court (SC) expanded the meaning of vulnerable witnesses to also include among others sexual assault victims, those with mental illness and people with speech or hearing impairment.

  • The SC referred to a verdict of 1996 in which it had passed similar directions, then in 2004 and in 2017, when it had asked all the High Courts of the country to adopt the guidelines prepared by the Delhi High Court in 2017 for vulnerable witnesses.

Key Points

  • Vulnerable Witnesses: Vulnerable witnesses will not be limited to mean only child witnesses. It will also include
    • Age-neutral victims of sexual assault.
    • Gender-neutral victims of sexual assault, under section 377 IPC (unnatural offences).
    • Witnesses suffering from mental illness as defined in Mental Healthcare Act, 2017.
    • Witnesses with threat perception and any speech or hearing impaired individual or person suffering from any other disability.
  • Vulnerable Witness Deposition Centre (VWDC): The SC directed that all High Court’s (HC) adopt and notify a Vulnerable Witness Deposition Centre (VWDC) scheme within a period of two months.
    • VWDC will provide a safe and barrier-free environment for recording the evidence of vulnerable witnesses.
    • The SC asked HC’s to ensure that there is one VWDC in each district.
    • These VDWC should be established in close proximity to Alternate Dispute Resolution (ADR) centres.
  • Sensitising Stakeholders: The SC also pointed to the importance of conducting training programs to manage VWDC and sensitising all stakeholders including members of the bar, bench and staff.
    • The SC urged former Chief Justice of Jammu and Kashmir HC Justice Gita Mittal to act as Chairperson of a committee for designing and implementing an All India VWDC training program.
    • The SC also directed the Chairperson of the committee to engage with National and State Legal Services Authorities to provide an effective interface for schemes of training.
    • It also asked the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development to designate a nodal officer for coordinating logistical support to the Chairperson.

Witness Protection in India

  • In 2018, the SC approved the Witness Protection Scheme 2018 which aimed at enabling a witness to depose fearlessly and truthfully. Under the Judgement, SC held that:
  • While the scheme is pending in the Parliament, the SC had ordered to implement the scheme immediately in all the states and the scheme would be the law of the land.
  • The need to protect witnesses has been emphasised by Law Commission reports and court judgments for years.
    • The State of Gujarat v. Anirudh Singh (1997), 14th Law Commission Report and Malimath Committee Report has recommended a witness protection scheme.

Way Forward

  • The witnesses are “eyes and ears of justice”, and this scheme is a step in the right direction towards the effective justice delivery system of the nation.
  • However, until now, there have been ad hoc steps such as few dedicated courtrooms for vulnerable witnesses mostly child victims and concealing the identity of witnesses (in cases like anti-terrorism etc) have been unsuccessful to prevent witnesses.
  • Hence, legislative measures to emphasise prohibition against tampering of witnesses have become the imminent and inevitable need of the day.

Source: IE