The Women’s Centre for Change (WCC) welcomes the allocation of RM120m by the Ministry of Economic Affairs for upgrading and repair work at old court buildings throughout the country. However, there is more to be done beyond repairing basic infrastructure.
As an NGO that closely supports child victims of sexual violence in court, we would like to draw attention to the situation of court live link facilities in Penang.
The Evidence of Child Witness Act 2007 allows a child under 16 to give evidence by live link, where the child testifies through video, addressing the judge or magistrate, while in a separate room. This greatly reduces the trauma the child would otherwise face being in the same courtroom as the accused, especially in cases of sexual abuse.
Between January and November 2019, the WCC supported 25 cases of sexual and domestic violence by accompanying the women and child victims to court for their trials. Out of these 25 cases, six (24%) involved child victims below 16.
In all six cases involving these child victims, where the trials were conducted at the courts of George Town and Butterworth, the court live-link facilities had broken down. One of our clients, a child below ten, was traumatised as she had no choice but to give evidence in the same courtroom as her alleged molester. Although she was provided with a physical screen which blocked her from his sight, it did not help much. Sometimes, trials are postponed due to the live-link facilities breaking down, leading to delay, inconvenience and additional cost for the parties involved.
During our recent inter-agency dialogue with the police, courts, welfare department, hospitals and other agencies, we raised this issue and were informed that such breakdowns are a regular occurrence; the courts could not do anything as they did not have enough funds for technical support to attend to the breakdowns when they occurred.
We are very concerned about this situation. Failure to ensure that the live link option is fully available has a direct impact on the capacity of vulnerable witnesses such as young children, particularly those who have suffered sexual violence, to give evidence. This, in turn, has a strong impact on the outcome of the case and ultimately on the victims’ access to justice. While we do not have exact figures for other states beyond Penang, we are concerned that this is not uncommon across the country. We are certain that affected courts and deputy public prosecutors share our frustration on this matter.
We urge the federal government, including the Ministry of Economic Affairs, to take immediate and concrete steps to ensure that all available court live-link facilities are repaired where needed. These facilities must also be regularly maintained to ensure they remain in good working order.
We appeal for increased funding for this purpose, towards ensuring full access to justice for child witnesses.