In a major order, the Supreme Court on Tuesday expanded the definition of “vulnerable witness” in a criminal case, which earlier used to be a child below the age of 18, to include age and gender-neutral victims of sexual assault and witnesses suffering from mental illness among others.
The top court also expanded the definition to include any speech or hearing impaired individual or a person suffering from any other disability, who is considered to be a vulnerable witness by the competent court or any other witness deemed to be vulnerable by the court concerned.
It said the need for the importance of setting up special facilities which cater to the creation of a safe and barrier-free environment for recording the evidence of vulnerable witnesses have been engaging this court’s attention over the last two decades.
The top court directed all the High Courts to adopt and notify a Vulnerable Witness Deposition Centre (VWDC) scheme within two months from the date of this order unless a scheme has already been notified.
A bench of Justices D Y Chandrachud and Surya Kant appointed former Chief Justice of Jammu and Kashmir High Court Gita Mittal as chairperson of the committee for designing and implementing an all India VWDC training programme for managing such centres and sensitizing all the stakeholders including judicial officers, members of the bar and staff of the court establishments.
“The definition of “vulnerable witness” contained in clause 3 of the VWDC scheme formulated by the Delhi High Court shall not be limited to child witnesses, who have not attained the age of 18 years and would be expanded”, the bench said, while including the categories of age-neutral victims of sexual assault, gender-neutral victims of sexual assault, witnesses suffering from mental illness and any witness deemed to have threat perception under the witness protection scheme of 2018 of the Union government. The top court referred to a verdict of 1996 in which the top court 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.
In 2017, the top court had said that all the High Courts can adopt such guidelines if the same has not yet been adopted with such modifications as may be deemed necessary.
“Setting up of one centre for vulnerable witnesses may be required in almost every district in the country. All the High Courts may take appropriate steps in this direction in due course in phases. At least two such centres in the jurisdiction of each High Court may be set up within three months from today. Thereafter, more such centres may be set up as per the decision of the High Courts”, the top court had directed in 2017.
The bench headed by Justice DY Chandrachud was hearing a matter where it was looking into the compliance of directions issued in 2017.
It said, “All High Courts shall adopt and notify a vulnerable witness VWDC scheme within a period of two months from the date of this order unless a scheme has already been notified. The High Courts which already have existing VWDC schemes in place may consider making suitable modifications to the scheme in order to bring it in conformity with the guidelines which have been indicated in the present order”.
The bench said that in formulating the VWDC scheme, the High Courts shall have due regard to the scheme which have been formulated by the Delhi High Court, which has been duly approved by the judgement of this Court in State of Maharashtra versus Bandhu (2017 verdict). “Every High Court should set up an In-house VWDC committee for continuously supervising the implementation of the present directions and making periodic assessments of the number of the VWDCs required in each district proportionate to the time required for recording evidence of vulnerable witnesses and to coordinate the conduct of periodic training programmes”, it said.
The top court said that every High Court is requested to make an assessment of the costs to its manpower and infrastructure required to set up at least one permanent VWDC in every establishment of the district court and estimate the optimal number of VWDCs required for the entire state within a period of three months.
With regard to the tenure of Justice (retd) Gita Mittal, the bench said that the initial tenure of the chairperson shall be for a period of two years and all the High Courts shall facilitate and give full cooperation in conducting training programmes as in terms of the module, which will be prepared by the chairperson.
It said that upon the estimation of the costs by the VWDC committee of each High Court, the state government shall expeditiously sanction the requisite funds not later than within a period of three months from the date of submission of the proposals and disburse the same to the High Court in accordance with the plan. The top court said that the High Courts shall ensure that at least one permanent VWDC is set up in every district court establishment within a period of four months and the registrar general shall file compliance reports with this court. Several other guidelines were also issued by the top court in order to facilitate efficient working of VWDCs on the suggestion of amicus curiae senior advocate Vibha Datta Makhija and in coordination with the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development and respective ministries of the States.
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