Easing the Road to Justice for Child Victims
On April 6, 2023, the Dewan Negara passed the Evidence of Child Witness (Amendment) Bill 2023 to provide more extensive protection to children on the road to justice!
Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department (Law and Institutional Reform) Datuk Seri Azalina Othman Said, said the amendment was phase one, but more will come.
This Evidence of Child Witness (Amendment) Bill 2023 has :
Increased the age limit of the definition of ‘children’ from 16 to 18 years so that all children can benefit from the special measures to help them give evidence
Allowed the child ‘s entire evidence to be pre-recorded before the trial through a ‘special hearings’ which will reduce distress and delays for the child ; and
Given judges the power to stop improper questions to child witnesses.
This is a great win for children, but we’re not at the finish line yet. Phase two is being planned but only after discussion with stakeholders to make sure the amendments are comprehensive and well-thought through.
YOU can support us by sharing your views on why you think a child-friendly court system is needed in Malaysia. Share on social media and tag UNICEF Malaysia (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram) with the hashtag #MYroadtojustice OR respond via our Comment box (no need for a social media account!).
Court processes can be daunting and intimidating to adults but even more so to children. The stress a child victim endures to seek justice can result in many deciding to give up before the conclusion.
The graphics below endevour to show what the road to justice looks like for child victims.
The many roadblocks a child faces in their 'quest' for justice can mean that some are unable to continue the process.
Roadblock 1: Limited info for child and parents
Children and parents lack support along the journey and don't understand the court process.
Roadblock 2: Anxiety over going to court
Children feel anxious when going to court as shown in some of the experiences shared with the Women's Centre for Change (WCC), Penang.
"I am frightened."
I am scared to go to court."
"Nervous sebab saya takut dengan suasana. Macam mana dengan hakim dengan peguam? Rasa macam terdesak."
Roadblock 3: Anxiety and frustration over delays
The child has to appear in court many times due to postponements. This is distressing for the child and incurs costs to the parents. Children also miss school and parents would need to take leave from work. For some, this may affect incomes. The following are shared experiences to the WCC Penang.
"It’s so frustrating. I have to go to school….. I have to write letters for my absence."
"I don’t want to keep coming back to Penang ( to court) to give evidence. I am tired. It’s been 2 years. When will it end?"
Father of child witness: "He was 7 when it happened. He is now 9 years old and still it’s not over."
Roadblock 4: Intimidating court experience
A child being questioned can feel intimidated by confusing, harsh, or prolonged questioning. The following are real experiences shared with WCC Penang by child witnesses.
"I told them everything already. I don’t feel like repeating / telling them again and again."
"I don’t understand what he is asking/saying."
"Why is he raising his voice? I am scared."
The court outcome: not always the hoped for Journey's end.
A conviction is not guaranteed and it's often hard for a child to understand why.
Easing the Road to Justice for Child Victims
UNICEF believes that there are actions we can all take to make the journey less daunting for the child, while ensuring fairness for all.
These are some recommendations on how we can do that.
Recommendation 1: Assigning a Victim Support Person
Few families are familiar with the court process and without the right information, the experience is made more difficult for the child victim. UNICEF recommends the assigning of a Victim Support Person to guide and assist them on the journey and keep them up to date on the progress of the case.
Recommendation 2: Holding a child-friendly “Special Hearing”
The child involved in the case has often to deal with delays and postponements caused by many factors. Postponements mean a child must appear in court many times, which is distressing for the child and incurs costs for the family. The child will have to be absent from school and parents need to take leave from work. For some parents, this may mean a loss of income.
Long delays in the process also increases the child’s anxiety and affects their memory, since the trial may be many months or years after the incident.
UNICEF believes we can avoid these barriers to justice for children, by holding a “Special hearing” to record the child’s entire testimony (Cross examination and re-examination). The child's evidence is taken as soon as possible (before the trial), at a child-friendly Special Hearing, which is video-recorded. This captures the child’s evidence while their memory is still fresh, and means the child does not have to attend court multiple times.
Once the Special Hearing is concluded, the child can progress in their healing without having to revisit the incident.
Recommendation 3: Controlling inappropriate questioning
Proceedings in court are intimidating enough. Sometimes, cross-examination and questioning can come across as confusing, harsh, or prolonged to a child (and even to adults!). To reduce distress to the child so that the child can provide best evidence, UNICEF recommends the judge exercises strict control of the tone and style of questions put to a child to ensure they are able to give their best evidence.
These recommendations are not novel and have been tried and tested successfully in other countries. UNICEF believes that in removing the barriers to a child seeking justice, we do not threaten fairness, but rather enhance it by creating a level playing field for all parties.