Children and other vulnerable witnesses will be able to give evidence without the stress of physically appearing in court under new laws which come into effect today.
Attorney General Joe Berinson said that in appropriate cases, evidence could be given by closed-circuit television or video to help reduce the stress experienced by children and other `special' witnesses such as the severely mentally or physically disabled, or people likely to be seriously intimidated or distressed.
Reducing the trauma for witnesses should also enhance the quality of evidence given to the court to help it in reaching a decision.
The new law enables the judge to declare that a person giving evidence is a special witness.
Mr Berinson said the change was an important reform designed to lessen the trauma associated with court proceedings, and would be particularly important in sexual abuse cases.
The Acts Amendment (Evidence of Children and Others) Act includes safeguards to protect the accused person's right to a fair trial. The child or other special witness would still be available for cross-examination, and where closed-circuit television was not available, a screen could be used to prevent the witness seeing the accused.
Mr Berinson said the new law also:
· prevents unrepresented defendants directly cross-examining children under 16 years;
· allows child witnesses to have a supporting adult with them during court proceedings, where he or she is approved by the court and is not a witness in or party to the proceedings;
· makes new provisions about the competency of young children to give sworn or unsworn evidence;
· removes the requirement that unsworn evidence by children under 12 years must be corroborated; and
· allows a `communicator' to be appointed by the courts to help children and court personnel (including judges and lawyers) understand each other.
The changes are part of a package of reforms by the Government focussing on the needs of children. This has included much harsher penalties for sexual offences against children and the strengthening of provisions to ensure prosecutions against incest offenders, paedophiles, and other sex offenders are more likely to succeed. These came into effect on August 1.