Participation of children in the criminal justice system is required to be handled diligently. If questioned skillfully, they provide an unbiased view of circumstances leading to the happening of a particular instance. However, there are several factors such as their age, psychological development etc. which need to be considered before admitting a child’s testimony. In this article we provide an in-depth yet precise analysis of conviction based on sole testimony of child witness.
Statutory Analysis of Admissibility of Child Testimony
The Indian Evidence Act, 1872
Section 118 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 stipulates who is a competent witness. It is stated as follows:
“118. Who may testify- All persons shall be competent to testify, unless the Court considers that they are prevented from understanding the questions put to them, or giving rational answers to those questions, by tender years, extreme old age, disease, whether of body or mind, or any other cause of the same kind.
Explanation – A lunatic is not incompetent to testify, unless he is prevented by his lunacy from understanding, the questions put to him and giving rational answers to them.”
The Section is negatively worded as it prohibits children of tender years, persons of old age and those suffering from any mind or body-related diseases from testifying in the Court.
There is no bar prescribing a minimum age requirement for testifying in the Court. The test laid down for a competent witness is that he ought to comprehend the questions and answer them rationally. The child’s understanding of the gravity of the situation and its consequences, therefore, holds immense importance. Thus, for deciding the competency of a child-witness the courts apply the Voir Dire Test.
Under Voir Dire test, the Judge asks general questions to the child such as his name, his father’s name, the class he studies in, what subjects he is currently studying etc. Such unrelated questions ensure that the child is comfortable during the examination. The onus is on the Judge for ensuring that the child is a competent witness. The test in such a case, therefore, is not to show the intelligence of the highest order but the ability to recall an instance correctly before the Court.
Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015
The object of the Juvenile Justice Act is to ensure a child-friendly approach in criminal cases by keeping his best interests in mind. The Act mentions that Child Welfare Officers and Special Juvenile Police Units shall be provided with appropriate training to ensure that there is coordination for obtaining a child’s testimony. It further states that police officers should not wear uniforms while interviewing him.
Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012
The POCSO Act also stipulates certain safeguards for child witness. The police officer should not be in uniform while interviewing the child. He must ensure that the child is not in contact with the accused during the investigation. Magistrates are also empowered to record a child’s statement under the Act. The Act also empowers Special Courts to withhold child’s identity. The Act provides 30 days for recording his statement. A child may also take expert assistance when testifying in front of the Court.
Expanding the Scope of Child Testimony through Judicial Analysis
Role of Trial Court in Determining the Competency of a Minor Witness
To determine the competency of the minor witness, the judge must analyze the child’s intelligence and demeanour for arriving at a just decision. The lower courts are best suited to ascertain the competency of a child to be a credible witness on the ground that the trial court judges are familiar with the residential locality of the minor. This fact helps in the determination of the competency from a physiological perspective. Since a criminal case is initiated at a trial court there is a little possibility of the testimony getting influenced later on. Moreover, if a decision given by the trial court is erroneous it can be interfered by the higher courts.
Prejudice Attached to the Testimony of a Minor Witness
The jurisprudence on the child testimony is that the courts should not evaluate it with a prejudiced mind. In Panchii v. The State of UP , a child witnessed a gruesome murder of his entire family. The Supreme Court convicted all the accused based on the testimony of the child. It rejected the argument that even a reliable testimony by a minor cannot form the basis of conviction. In this case, the Court held that testimony of minor witness should not be stigmatized, but closely scrutinized to ensure that it is not tutored.
Similarly, in Prakash v. The State of MP, the trial court acquitted all the accused on the ground that the sole witness is a minor child who is likely to be tutored. However, the High Court reversed the decision and convicted all the accused by relying on the testimony of the child witness. The Supreme Court agreed with the High Court’s decision and observed that it cannot be presumed that a child witness cannot give intricate details of a murder witnessed by him without tutoring.
Corroboration of Testimony of Minor Witness
The chance of a minor’s testimony being tutored is quite high. Thus, where courts feel that the minor has been coaxed into giving a testimony then the corroboration of such testimony becomes imperative.
The Supreme Court in the landmark case of Rameshwar v. the State of Rajasthan explained the rules governing the corroboration of testimony given by a child. Here, the Court held that non-administration of oath to a minor will not make a child testimony inadmissible as the Indian Oath Act does not deal with the competency but with the credibility of the evidence given on oath. The Supreme Court advised that the credibility of a child’s testimony may be ensured and the judges should record the reasons as to why they think that the child understands the obligation to speak the truth and where no such reasons have been provided by the judge, the same can be ascertained from the facts and circumstances of the case.
In Rameshwar Case, the Court explained that independent proof of every incident mentioned in child testimony is not required for sustaining a conviction. The law only requires some additional evidence which makes the testimony “reasonably safe”. Further, additional evidence need not be in the form of direct evidence. Circumstantial evidence which links the accused with a crime is sufficient for corroborating a child’s testimony. For instance – an earlier statement given by the minor to his father explaining the commission of a crime by the accused can be accepted as corroborating evidence.
In another landmark case – Sakshi v. Union of India, the Supreme Court provided additional safeguards to minor victims or witnesses of sexual offences. The following guidelines were given by the court in this case:
- Use of video tapped conference by a judge in the presence of childcare services.
- Minor to testify behind a screen or closed circuit.
- Cross-examination of minor should be related only to the testimony. It should be conducted by the Judge based on the written questions submitted by the defense counsel.
- Sufficient break should be provided to the minor while recording his testimony.
Another important aspect governing the evidence given by a minor witness is that the written statements in the form of affidavits are not admissible in court.
Corroboration of Minor’s Testimony
Corroboration of evidence is a rule of prudence and not of necessity. There is no legal provision that makes corroboration of testimony for securing a successful conviction mandatory. If the Judge is satisfied that under given circumstances of the case the corroboration of the child’s testimony is not required, he can pass a sentence based on uncorroborated testimony. Lastly, a prosecution can be sustained even when no independent witness is examined for corroborating testimony of a child.
Extreme Sentence on sole Minor Testimony
A testimony by a child witness can form the sole basis of conviction. However, in such cases, the courts should refrain from imposing extreme punishments such as the death penalty. In Suresh v. The State of U.P., finding the testimony of the sole minor witness to be reliable and convincing, the High Court convicted the accused and passed an order of death sentence. The Supreme Court in this case, commuted the sentence of the death penalty to life imprisonment.
Justice Chandrachud held that the Courts cannot impose extreme sentences by relying on evidence provided by a minor witness. He further held that even if the evidence provided is reliable, it will not be sufficient to pass a sentence of the death penalty. In Raja Ram Yadav v. The State of Bihar, based on the sole testimony of a child witness all four accused were given the death penalty by the lower courts. However, the Supreme Court commuted the death penalty to a life sentence. The SC reasoned that although the brutality of their actions in normal circumstances will justify the death penalty, in the instant case since the conviction is solely based on the testimony of minor witness it would not be proper to give the death sentence to the accused-appellants.
The rationale behind such an approach is that minor witness is often not administered oath due to his inability to comprehend the implications of the oath. Furthermore, owing to his immature understanding or fragile state of mind after witnessing a crime there is a possibility that he might mix up things while testifying. Thus, even if such testimony imparts confidence, it cannot be fully trusted as sole testimony of a minor does not invoke extreme sentences.
A child responds differently than an adult in a given situation. He may become fidgety or silent, instead of asking for a clarification when questions beyond his cognitive abilities are raised. Therefore, his testimony needs to be carefully examined to see whether it is tutored or not. However, care must be taken to ensure that there is no bias against the child-witness. Courts should work with trained staff and personnel to ensure that the child is at ease while testifying. Where a child is witness to a gruesome offence, the objective of all parties involved must to be to extract truth in most humane and kind manner. The courts must act like a guardian to ensure that the child doesn’t bear the trauma of court room procedures and interrogation.
About the Authors:
Aditya [2018-21] is pursuing LL.B from Law Centre II, Faculty of Law, University of Delhi
Rohan [2017-20] is pursuing LL.B from Law Centre II, Faculty of Law, University of Delhi.