Push for witness screens in sex cases

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 August, 2010, 12:00am

The memories of fear and dozens of sleepless nights that Bobo, the victime of a rape, experienced before she gave evidence in court against her assailant still trouble her several years on.

She said she could not imagine being able to testify in court if there had not been a screen in the court to shield her from the public gallery, and she remembers clearly her fear at seeing the offender, who had harassed and threatened her before the trial, and his family members sitting in the public gallery.

Bobo (a pseudonym) is thankful to police who helped her apply to have a screen erected in the court. The protective measure is not a mandatory one applying to all sex offence victims in Hong Kong.

'I was scared at the way he looked at me, the way he and his family members glared at me,' Bobo recalled. 'I could not sleep and kept waking with nightmares, and I drank a lot to try to make myself forget it.'

The screen shielded her from the public gallery, but not the accused or the judge and jury members during the trial. However, her decision to give evidence resulted in the man who raped her being jailed.

There is a push in Hong Kong for the mandatory provision of screens for all complainants giving evidence in sex-assault cases. Figures from the Association Concerning Sexual Violence Against Women show that victims in 14 cases among the 35 cases the association handled in the past three years requested a screen in court. But in only three cases were screens provided while evidence was given.

Association executive director Linda Wong Sau-yung said sex offence victims were finding it very difficult to get approval for shields despite the fact that there were guidelines. The Department of Justice's Statement on the Treatment of Victims and Witnesses states that protection should be given to vulnerable witnesses, which includes children, the mentally incapacitated and witness in fear.

The association says there are problems with the implementation of this guideline and has called on the Department of Justice to consider following Britiain's example. There, under guidelines set down in the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act of 1999, mandatory protection measures - including privacy shields - are provided to sex-offence witnesses giving evidence in court.

A Department of Justice spokeswoman said prosecutors were required to safeguard vulnerable witnesses and address their needs. Prosecutors should liaise with police to enable them to address witnesses' special needs.

Relevant issues included evidence given by live television link, video recorded evidence, priority listing, avoidance of delays, availability of support people, removal of gowns and wigs and appropriate security for witnesses in fear. 'There are also cases where the interests of justice require a screen to be made available to shield a witness from the accused or the public, or for the public gallery to be cleared,' she said.

'While protective measures for sex-offence victims may be necessary in some cases, the extent and nature of measures would very much depend on the particular circumstances of each case.'

The association questioned whether courts were equipped with screens for this purpose - and in many cases it found police needed to transport a screen from the police station to court.

Both the department and judiciary did not respond to questions about how many screens were available for use in Hong Kong courts.

Last year, 152 cases involved the use of television links by witnesses. Seventy per cent, or 106 cases, were heard in magistrates' courts, the department said.

A police spokesman said the force did address witnesses' special needs and, where appropriate, suggest to prosecutors that appropriate applications to the court be made for special measures.

'The application will be made in open court and the witness will be notified of the court's decision accordingly,' the spokesman added.

Stephen Hung Wan-shun, chairman of the Law Society's criminal law committee, said screens were used in some sex-offence cases in the District Court.

Hung said that usually victims in cases involving serious sex offences were granted protection. On whether automatic mandatory protection such as screens should be given to sex offence victims, he said that the court needed to see how the witness responded to questions.

A balance between the interests of the defendant and the prosecution had to be considered, Hung said.