For many people, testifying in court may be a difficult or even terrifying experience. The surroundings are usually formal and unfamiliar, cross-examination (meaning the questions asked by the lawyer who is defending the accused) can be unnecessarily aggressive and the witness may lack a thorough understanding of the courtroom procedure. The witness may also be afraid to testify in the presence of the accused in a criminal case, or in the presence of a hostile party in a civil case. These problems can be particularly acute for children, people with disabilities, and victims of sexual offences or domestic violence.
In 1998, at the request of Namibia’s Law Reform and Development Commission, the Legal Assistance Centre prepared a paper which proposed law reforms on vulnerable witnesses. The Criminal Procedure Amendment Act 24 of 2003 was passed to enact some of these recommendations. The category of “vulnerable witnesses” includes children and victims of sexual offences or domestic violence. The Act provides the following protections for vulnerable witnesses:
alternative venues for trials, so that they can held in environments which are less intimidating than courtrooms;
testifying behind one-way screens or by means of closed-circuit television;
support persons to accompany witnesses while they are testifying, so that (for example) a young child could speak to the court while sitting on the lap of a family member
strict limitations on the use of irrelevant cross-examination to badger witnesses, to make it harder to intimidate or unnerve a witness
cross-examination through the presiding officer or an intermediary, to make sure that lawyers do not try to intimidate or confuse a witness
more possibilities for using information given by a young children prior to the trial, such as statements made to social workers or police officers, to avoid the necessity of asking the child to repeatedly recount the details of a traumatic experience.
These provisions have been extended by the Child Care and Protection Act 3 of 2015 to all proceedings in children’s courts.
Practical arrangements to make trials more comfortable for vulnerable witnesses are in place in courtrooms in various parts of the country. For example, the Katutura Regional Magistrates’ Court has extensive victim-friendly facilities.
Terrified witnesses who no longer have to testify under the intimidating stare of their abusers are likely to give more reliable evidence which will lead to more just outcomes for all.
If you must testify in court and would like to make use of the protections for vulnerable witnesses, you can ask a social worker or the prosecutor or the presiding officer to help arrange this for you.