New Delhi: High courts across the country are yet to implement, in entirety, a 2017 Supreme Court judgment that asked them to set up a vulnerable witness deposition centre (VWDC) in every high court and judicial district of each state.
Nine out of 25 HCs have still not established the centres on their own premises and many district courts continue to be without them too. While Maharashtra has the highest number of VWDCs, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Kerala, Himachal Pradesh and some other states are yet to set up even one such centre.
This status report — based on data collated by senior advocate Vibha Dutta Makhija — is part of a January 2022 Supreme Court judgment that issued guidelines expanding the definition of a “vulnerable witness”, to make it both age- and gender-neutral.
A bench of justices D.Y. Chandrachud and Surya Kant has set up a panel with former Jammu and Kashmir High Court Chief Justice Gita Mittal as its chairman, which shall engage with all the high courts for the creation of the deposition centres. The panel shall also prepare a module for periodic training programmes to manage VWDCs.
The SC directed the high courts to adopt and notify VWDC schemes within two months from the date of the order, unless already notified.
In the 2017 judgement, the SC had suggested having a VWDC in each district court. The rationale behind this was to provide a conducive environment to vulnerable witnesses, especially victims of crimes, to make a statement during a criminal trial.
Since the directions came in a rape case, most of these centres have been used to record statements of victims in sexual assault cases, including those against children.
In the 2017 order, the top court had also asked states to adopt the Delhi High Court’s guidelines for recording evidence of vulnerable witnesses in criminal matters. According to the order, a screen or another such barrier may be kept, so that the victim or witnesses (who may be equally vulnerable like the victim) do not see the body or face of the accused.
Makhija’s data reflects the status of VWDCs as of 1 October 2021.
‘Conducive environment for vulnerable witnesses’
This is not the first time the SC has spoken about providing a conducive environment to vulnerable witnesses.
It started in 2004, when the SC suggested guidelines to be followed in rape trials. This was done to make sure rape victims are not harassed during cross-examination or made to face awkward and embarrassing questions during the trial by defence counsels.
Later, in 2017, the top court mooted the idea of creating special centres where vulnerable witnesses could appear and record their statements without any fear. In 2018, the SC once again focussed on vulnerable witnesses and approved a witness protection scheme. The move was seen as an attempt to bring witness protection under the ambit of law and hold the state responsible for the same.
Every high court, according to the 2017 order, is to set up an in-house permanent VWDC committee for supervising the implementation of the top court’s directions and make an estimation of costs towards manpower and infrastructure required to set up at least one permanent VWDC in every district court.
Status of VWDCs in various states
The data collated by Makhija and reproduced in the SC judgment this month shows that with 116 out of 227 proposed VWDCs, Maharashtra has the highest number of vulnerable witness deposition centres in district and subordinate courts. Work is in progress to set up 72 more centres.
According to the data, there is not even a single centre in Uttar Pradesh, which comes under the jurisdiction of the Allahabad High Court. But two judgeships at Allahabad and Lucknow have been identified for developing witness-friendly courtrooms.
The status report says that Rajasthan has 35 judicial districts, out of which permanent VWDCs are functioning in 24, while 10 have temporary centres.
Six out of 10 proposed centres are operating in Delhi. In Odisha, 9 VWDCs have been set up, but in seven districts there is no space available to construct the deposition room.
The report further reveals that 70 vulnerable witness deposition centres are approved in Tamil Nadu, but only six “child-friendly” VWDCs have been established and work is being completed for six more. For the remaining approved centres, either funds are yet to be sanctioned or approval for construction is awaited.
Only 5 centres in Punjab have been set up, whereas 20 are planned, while Karnataka has VWDCs in 4 out of 30 judicial districts. Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Assam, West Bengal, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana do not have any dedicated centres to record statements of vulnerable witnesses.
Expanding definition of ‘vulnerable witness’
In its judgment expanding the definition of a ‘vulnerable witness’, the bench of justices Chandrachud and Surya Kant observed that the slew of guidelines is intended to help implement the directions in the 2017 judgment.
The latest order includes as ‘vulnerable witness’ age- and gender-neutral victims of sexual assault, witnesses suffering from any mental illness, as well those witnesses who come under the ambit of the witness protection scheme. Individuals who are hearing-impaired or suffering from other disabilities are also included.
“Access to justice mandates that positive steps have to be adopted to create a barrier-free environment. These barriers are not only those which exist within the physical spaces of conventional courts but those which operate on the minds and personality of vulnerable witnesses,” Justices Chandrachud and Surya Kant noted in the January order that expands the definition of a vulnerable witness.
The fairness of the process of trial as well as the pursuit of substantive justice are determined in a significant measure by the manner in which statements of vulnerable witnesses are recorded, the bench said, adding that a person’s dignity is intrinsic to Article 21 (right to life and liberty) of the Constitution, something that cannot be left to the vagaries of “insensitive procedures and a hostile environment”.
(Edited by Saikat Niyogi)