Editorial

Shielding witnesses: on protection scheme

A robust witness protection scheme will strengthen the criminal justice system

The witness protection programme is at last in place. Pending legislation by Parliament, the Supreme Court has asked States to implement a scheme framed by the Centre to protect witnesses in criminal trials from threat, intimidation and undue influence. Given the abysmal rate of convictions in the country, it is inexcusable that it took so long. The need to protect witnesses has been emphasised by Law Commission reports and court judgments for years. Witnesses turning hostile is a major reason for most acquittals. In the current system, there is little incentive for witnesses to turn up in court and testify against criminals. Besides threats to their lives, they experience hostility and harassment while attending courts. The tardy judicial process seldom takes into account the distance they have travelled or the time they have lost in attending court, only to be told they have to return another day. As Justice A.K. Sikri points out, the condition of witnesses in the Indian legal system is “pathetic”, as it takes them for granted. It is gratifying that the court has played a proactive role in getting the Centre and the States to come up with a concrete proposal. The Centre deserves credit for coming forward to suggest that its draft witness protection scheme be introduced by judicial mandate instead of waiting for formal legislation.

In its minutiae the scheme appears workable, but its efficacy will be confirmed only with the passage of time. It broadly classifies witnesses in need of protection into three types based on the threat assessment. A witness protection order will be passed by a competent authority. The scheme is to be funded by budgetary support from State governments and donations. This is at variance with the Law Commission’s recommendation in 2006 that the Centre and the States share the cost equally. Basic features such as in camera trial, proximate physical protection and anonymising of testimony and references to witnesses in the records are not difficult to implement. The real test will be the advanced forms of identity protection: giving witnesses a new identity, address and even ‘parentage’, with matching documents. All this needs to be done without undermining their professional and property rights and educational qualifications. The introduction of the scheme marks a leap forward. Until now, there have been ad hoc steps such as those outlined for concealing the identity of witnesses in anti-terrorism and child-centric laws. A few dedicated courtrooms for vulnerable witnesses, mostly child victims, are also functional. However, expanding such facilities and implementing a comprehensive and credible witness protection programme will pose logistical and financial challenges. It will be well worth the effort, as the scheme could help strengthen India’s tottering criminal justice system.

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Printable version | Feb 20, 2020 2:29:38 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/shielding-witnesses/article25682716.ece

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