By Dinouk Colombage
The Juvenile court system in Sri Lanka has come under criticism and scrutiny from the Institute of Human Rights. Officials from the Institute along with a group of lawyers have compiled a report outlining the shortcomings that exist within the current system.
Gayani Meegamuge contacted The Sunday Leader to draw attention to the issues that prevail within the juvenile court system. Having worked at remand homes and the juvenile courts, Meegamuge has had first-hand experience of the problems that exist. In the report drawn up by the Institute of Human Rights, attention is drawn towards the number of child abuse cases that are pending in the High Court. Of the 14,966 cases currently pending that occurred in 2010, 4,032 are child abuse cases. In the past few years over 40% of child abuse cases have remained untouched by the authorities.
As these cases continue to remain unresolved the current situation will only worsen. Officials believe this will result in an unhealthy environment for the children involved. During the period of the case children are often uprooted and shifted to temporary homes. Along with this, their education is disrupted. The overall result of this ordeal is great mental and emotional stress for the child. Often the children are forced to go through this trauma without seeing a conclusion to the issue.
The Institute of Human Rights has suggested that the government has not taken adequate steps to overcome the delays that are prevalent in the structure. In a letter addressed to the High Court, they suggested several steps be taken to help speed up the legal process involved with child abuse cases. The first step suggested has been for the government to impose a three-month time limit to dispose of cases involving children. This would prevent a build-up of unresolved cases.
Meegamuge drew our attention to the fact that some cases have been pending for over 10 years. Along with the delay the Institute believes that the absence of a properly established Children’s Magistrate Court has also contributed to the continual delays. The lack of Children’s Magistrate Courts in every province means many cases are not taken up fast enough. Children when appearing in court are intimidated by the situation and often refuse to provide necessary evidence. Meegamuge explained that the presence of a child-friendly court is essential in making the child comfortable. It is only then that the evidence can be effectively presented. The training of the judges is also necessary as the Children’s Magistrates Court could not operate without a judge who understands the procedures and operations.
Meegamuge drew attention to the problems that the children face during the period of the case. The remand homes are overcrowded and often unsupervised, resulting in further suffering for the child. Meegamuge, having worked with remand homes previously, has seen the incidents which take place in these institutions. Often children are locked up in a room to prevent them from running away. Due to the lack of funding and available homes, children are crowded into rooms leading to insanitary conditions. Children are not segregated and special treatment is not offered to those who are disabled.
The Sunday Leader spoke to Nimali Jayasundara, a paediatrician who has worked with abused children. Jayasundara highlighted the severe abuse of children that continues to take place, despite them being placed in homes in an attempt to help them escape the trauma. Due to the fear and intimidation of the children the abuse is not further reported and so officials are often unaware. Nimali Jayasundara told The Sunday Leader that ‘at some remand houses there have been reports of outsiders being allowed in and sexually abusing the children on a regular basis.’
The Institute of Human Rights has called for a change in the system to help protect the children while they are in Child Services. An official from the Institute, who requested anonymity, explained that they have asked that the government restores Child Services as a Central Government Department under the Ministry of Child Development. This would ensure that there would be adequate and effective human and material resources to ensure protection and rehabilitation of the children. It is due to the untrained and often lack of personnel that has resulted in the continued abuse of children, despite having been placed in these homes. Furthermore the institution has suggested that the government recruit, train and organise probation and childcare officers so that they are able to respond immediately on a 24 hour basis.
The Sunday Leader contacted the High Court for a comment on the letter and the suggestions for improvement given by the Institute of Human Rights. A High Court official refused to comment explaining that they have not studied the proposals closely. When asked about the lack of Children’s Magistrates Courts the official explained that plans are in place to introduce a separate court for children. Further questioning about the delays that exist in the system led to the official becoming agitated, stating that they are forced to work with the resources they have.
He further added that ‘studies such as this are welcome yet all the suggestions cannot simply be implemented, there is a process.’ He refused to further comment on the allegations about the abuse that continues in the remand homes. The Ministry of Justice refused to comment on the issue. Having studied the suggestions and issues in the ongoing Child Abuse cases The Sunday Leader has recognised the necessity for these changes to be implemented. The problems will clearly continue to grow if they are not addressed immediately; unfortunately it appears that those in positions of authority are unwilling to make any changes.