Supreme court expands meaning of vulnerable witnesses, directs high court’s to set up VWDC committees.

The supreme court on 11th January 2022 Tuesday 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. Hearing a plea on the issue of protecting vulnerable witnesses, a bench of justices DY Chandrachud and Surya Kant said that vulnerable witnesses will not be limited to mean only child witnesses but will include age-neutral victims of sexual assault, gender-neutral victims of sexual assault, age and gender neutral victims of sexual assault under section 377 IPC (unnatural offences), witnesses suffering from mental illness as defined in mental healthcare Act, witnesses with threat perception and any speech or hearing impaired individual or person suffering from any other disability who is considered to be vulnerable by the court concerned.

Underlining the need for setting up special facilities to create a safe and barrier- free environment for recording the evidence of vulnerable witnesses, the court also directed that all HC’s adopt and notify a vulnerable witness deposition centre (VWDC) scheme within a period of two months. It also said that every HC should set up a permanent VWDC committee. The SC asked HC’s to give an estimate of manpower required to have VWDC in their respective states within a period of three months.

The bench also pointed to the importance conducting training programs to manage VWDC and sensitizing all stakeholders including members of the bar, bench, and staff. Agreeing with the suggestion by senior advocate Vibha Makhija who assisted the court as amicus curlae in the matter, the court 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 initial tenure of the chairperson, sai the court shall be for 2 years. The SC asked HC’s to ensure that there is one VWDC in each district. In states where alternate dispute resolution
(ADR) centers have been set up in close proximity to the court complexes, the HC’s will be at liberty to ensure that a VWDC is made available within the premises of ADR centre, it added.

The court also requested 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 the implementation of its directions and facilitating logistical support to the chairperson.

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