Support for minors testifying in court should be mandatory and not left to the discretion of magistrates, according to children’s rights activist Jenilee Agius, drawing on her personal experience as a child witness.
Some 10 years ago, Ms Agius, 25, served as a witness in a case involving the defilement of minors and to this day recalls the inadequacy of the system when dealing with youngsters in court.
“I remember clearly, for instance, the accused, with handcuffs removed, walking past the group of witnesses, most of whom were minors. I was 12, and that was very difficult,” Ms Agius told The Sunday Times of Malta.
She spoke to this newspaper about the ordeal ahead of her speech at the second edition of the National Conference on Child Wellbeing. The theme of this year’s two-day conference, held at the Grandmaster’s Palace in Valletta from Friday to yesterday, was ‘Access to justice for children’.
Ms Agius is also one of the founding members of Students for Children, an organisation that works to promote safeguarding children’s rights.
Children going through cross-examination should not have to testify alone but should have persons offering support close by, Ms Agius stressed. This person would ideally be a child advocate, who could offer support to the children while also making sure that their rights were protected.
I remember clearly the accused, with handcuffs removed, walking past the group of witnesses… I was 12, and that was very difficult
“When I testified, we were cross-examined by people we did not know. We never had any persons offering support next to us while in court.”
While Ms Agius pointed out that there have been some improvements since her appearance in court 10 years ago, she insisted that there were a number of issues that still needed to be tackled.
At present, she said, psychologists and lawyers were only appointed on instruction by a magistrate, and while most did appoint professionals to assist children, at the end of the day such appointments remained at the magistrates’ discretion.
In most cases, Ms Agius went on, children who have to endure such situations end up with mental health problems, and it was high time that this was addressed, before the damage became irreversible.
“A psychologist should also be available before, during and after the proceedings to prevent the ripple effect of these cases. Very often, these children end up with mental health problems as a result, and that needs to be prevented,” the activist said.
Another recommendation from Ms Agius is that children’s rights in legal proceedings be incorporated into the Children’s Act. Children, she said, should be in-formed of their rights in court.
Addressing the conference on Friday, President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca said that children’s access to justice can no longer remain “a grey area”, insisting all efforts to help protect their rights should be exhausted.
“The harsh reality is that most vulnerable children are not aware of their intrinsic right to access justice. They are not empowered or nurtured; they are not empowered to enjoy a sense of control over their own lives,” the President said.