Finally child friendly courts

Juvenile justice system takes a positive turn Kumudini Hettiarachchi reports

There will be no pounding of the gavel, no magistrate in robe frowning down from the bench, no uniformed officials, no dreary surroundings and no dock.

Instead there will be a spacious and airy room, with everyone seated around a table to bring about the best option. For these hearings are dealing not with hardened adults but with tender young children.

These are the children who for some reason or other have had a brush with the law. Depending on how the juvenile justice system treats them, they could go back to their community as well-rounded, rehabilitated individuals or end up as the dregs of society, frequently in breach of the law as adults.

Underscoring the point that child offenders are child victims of some circumstance like poverty or broken homes, Justice Ministry Secretary Suhada Gamalath explains that moves are underway to bring about drastic changes in the juvenile justice system in Sri Lanka which has not been very satisfactory when compared with other countries, especially the United Kingdom.

"The child who has come into conflict with the law, maybe through a trivial escapade or even a dangerous one is also a victim," says Mr. Gamalath adding that in the juvenile justice system, Sri Lanka has lagged behind many other countries. Citing the Bambalapitiya court where such cases are heard as "totally unsuitable" without any facilities, he said that would change with the setting up of a Children's Court at Battaramulla.

This modern Children's Court complex will be in the building earlier occupied by the Mediation Boards Commission and the Law Commission of Sri Lanka which are being shifted to Hulftsdorp to provide a "one-stop place" for all law matters, the Sunday Times understands.

Not only the Children's Courts at Battaramulla but also the one to be set up in Jaffna (close to the High Court complex) by the end of April and subsequently at Galle, Badulla or Kandy and Batticaloa will be child-friendly.

At Battaramulla, in addition to the hearing room, there will be a room where children can relax, with books, a TV and a computer, said Mr. Gamalath, adding that another special feature will be a play area to relieve the intimidatory atmosphere that is usually associated with courts.

Both UNICEF and Save the Children Sri Lanka have been supporting these measures conceptually and financially, he said, adding that a survey among children who had come into conflict with the law had brought to light many concerns.

They included simple pleas that children who have fallen on the wrong side of the law should not be scolded, that they are frightened of uniformed officials, that they should have a safe place to stay without fear and also somewhere they could relax while awaiting the hearing. Although the same building at Battaramulla will house the court where adults who have committed crimes against children will be tried, Mr. Gamalath stresses that such accused will use a separate entrance, with officials ensuring that they will not meet their victims. "Otherwise it will lead to double trauma for the child."

Some of the other measures that will come into effect will be that children who have had trouble with the law will not be kept with adult offenders and not transported in the same prison bus with adult criminals. Special houses as places of safety for such children are also to be established close to the Children's Court to accommodate them until a decision is taken about their future.

Currently, as probation and child care is a devolved subject under the 13th Amendment of the Constitution, the Provincial Councils which see to the welfare of these children are being urged to focus on such crucial issues, it is understood.

Not a prison but a school

A property set amidst the lush greenery of Ambepussa is now home to about 80 children who have come into conflict with the law and are acquiring not only vocational training but also life-skills to enable them to integrate into society.

There are no uniformed officers, only 'Masters' attired in white clothing looking after the children so that they evolve as good citizens, said Justice Ministry Secretary Gamalath, stressing that very soon the Education Ministry on the instructions of Secretary Nimal Bandara will register the institution as a school.
"Ambepussa is not a prison or a detention camp but a school," he says, explaining that earlier they were living under deplorable conditions at Pallansena, Negombo, sleeping on the floor surrounded by trenches teeming with mosquitoes after losing a 100-acre property at Wathupitiwela.

The Wathupitiwela Youthful Offenders' Training School, set up on land donated by the Obeyesekera family had been an ideal location for rehabilitation, it is learnt, with the children themselves planting and tending over 100 jak trees. However, the children had been uprooted from this location and dumped at Pallansena under appalling conditions in the late 1990's, going against all norms as it was just 10 metres from the main prison, the Sunday Times understands.

It is the Children and Young Persons Ordinance (CYPO) which lays down legal procedures to deal with both "delinquent or offender” and "deprived or victim” children (under the age of 14 years) and young persons (under the age of 16 years).

The ordinance is implemented chiefly by the "trinity" of police officers, probation and child care officers and the Magistrate's Courts which act as Juvenile Courts.

The Juvenile Court tries a child or young person who has allegedly committed a crime except the crimes of murder, culpable homicide or an attempt to commit murder or culpable homicide or armed robbery under section 383 of the Penal Code.

When a child/young person comes into contact with the law, CYPO stipulates confidentiality in handling the case; that he/she should be kept in a "place of safety" for immediate care and custody pending investigations; non-exposure to criminal elements at all stages of the case; participation of parent/guardian in the proceedings; immediate notification to probation and child care officer; presentation of social inquiry report to court; court inquiry on care and custody; and placement and follow-up.

When such a child/young person is taken in by the police, usually he/she is either granted bail or kept in a remand home for children.

If found guilty the court can discharge him/her after admonition; order that he/she be given to the parent, guardian or nearest adult relative on that adult undertaking responsibility for the good behaviour of the child/young person for a maximum of one year; order the child/young person to be placed with a fit person, whether relative or not and who is willing to take care of him/her; order a conditional discharge under section 306 of the Criminal Procedure Code; make a probation order; and where the crime is punishable with imprisonment in the case of an adult - order the child/young person to be held in custody in a remand home for a maximum period of one month or order her/him to be sent to an approved or certified school if above 12 years of age.

Whenever there is a problem with a child, it is important to consult the family and bring them into the picture as well, UNICEF consultant Sajeeva Samaranayake attached to the Justice Ministry told the Sunday Times.

It should not only be the police, the child and the Magistrate but also the parents, the probation officer, fit person, the principal of the child's school, a religious dignitary and some responsible persons from the community.

"A professional child protection team inclusive of education, health and social service officials are a must in handling such cases," says Mr. Samaranayake. For, social work must be recognized as the fundamental approach to child protection rather than policing or prosecution, he adds.

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