People who have lived through an act of violence or sexual assault, or those who have witnessed it, are often further traumatised by the court proceedings that may follow.
Appearing in court to testify as a victim of Gender-Based Violence (GBV) can be intimidating and stressful, but a court preparation officer can help you get ready for the trial.
Thobekile Chuene works as a court preparation officer for the National Prosecuting Authority at the Pietermaritzburg Magistrates’ Court in KwaZulu-Natal.
She is one of 161 court preparation officers at various courts across the country who work under the Ke Bona Lesedi Programme, which is aimed at ensuring witnesses, victims and survivors know what to expect in court and are given socio-psychological support.
“Members of the public often don’t know how courts function. This creates a lot of stress for them when they have to appear in court. The trauma they suffered makes it worse,” Chuene says.
She says this service is important because a prosecutor’s case is only as strong as his or her witnesses.
“Prosecutors refer witnesses and complainants to me for preparation, and I contact them in advance to determine travel arrangements, any special needs, or any other fears or concerns,” she says.
She contacts and meets her clients on the day, or ahead of the trial, for a preparation session that takes about one hour.
Afterwards, she gives feedback to the prosecutor, who then knows what to expect from the witness on the stand.
“We recently had a conviction in a matter where two minors had been raped. The youngest victim was six years old and had to take breaks every 15 minutes. The court was prepared, because they understood and accommodated her needs,” she says.
The Ke Bona Lesedi Programme
Chuene says there are immediate benefits for people who use the programme, which is a free service. These include:
Reasonable accommodation will be pre-arranged to provide you with ease of access to court. This is on condition the court preparation officer or the prosecutor is informed prior to the day of trial.
Your ability to answer questions in court in the most accurate and truthful manner will be improved.
Your questions will be answered, and you will be given emotional support.
Your confidence will be improved.
The court preparation officer can be your support person in court, and can refer you and/or your family members for counselling.
When children are prepared, the court preparation officer will act as a temporary caregiver in court. Special care will be given to children, as they are specifically vulnerable.
The court preparation officer can help you write a Victim Impact Statement, in which you say how the crime affected you or your family.
Support for different age groups
Chuene uses different methods to assist victims of different age groups.
“When preparing children for a court appearance, there are tools that are used to help them to relax when they arrive in court, because it is a stressful place. These tools empowers them to testify and to understand the justice system in a child-friendly manner,” she says.
The tools include mops and broom puppets that represent the different role players in court; a bumble bee hand puppet with an empowering message behind it; and ‘Womba the Elephant’, which has an equally empowering message to help the child with his/her case.
Teenagers, young adults, and the elderly are assisted in a method that is appropriate to their needs.