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Helping children get justice

Helen Ntsoka’s passion for justice saw her leave her teaching job after 20 years to serve the country’s justice system as an intermediary.

Since joining the justice system Helen Ntsoka has assisted more than 200 children in courts within Pretoria and neighbouring clusters.

In some cases, the children have been sexually abused or have witnessed violence, while others have a mental disability.

An intermediary conveys evidence-related questions from the prosecution, the defence or the magistrate to the child witness or witness with a mental disability in a sensitive manner that the witness understands.

This can be done by repeating or rephrasing questions so that they are understood by the witness.

Ntsoka’s primary role is to protect witnesses against hostile cross-examination and to assist them to understand the questions posed.

“A good intermediary must be patient with the witness and have a desire to help others, especially the most vulnerable, in order for justice to be served,” explains Ntsoka.

She credits her vast teaching experience and her educational qualifications for her ability to work with children in a sympathetic and compassionate manner.

A witness will only engage with an intermediary during court proceedings to protect the child from secondary victimisation and suffering from undue mental stress.

“When children testify in court, they are further protected by not testifying in an open court. This is to avoid having to come into contact with either the perpetrator or the perpetrator’s family.

She explains that a child testifies in a separate room, through CCTV, and the intermediary assists the witness throughout the testimony.

Ntsoka says her job can be traumatic at times due to the kind of evidence that she has to listen to. As such, the department organises an annual debriefing session to assist intermediaries to deal with trauma.

 “During these sessions, we are taught how to detach ourselves from whatever is being presented during trial that day. Whatever I learn from these sessions I put to practice and I find it helpful,” she said.

How children testify in court

A child witness gives evidence in a room separate from the courtroom. This room is referred to as a private testifying room and is usually located close to the main courtroom.

It has comfortable chairs and depending on the availability of space, it may also provide a small sleeping couch for a child to take a nap when drowsy or tired.

  • A video camera or one-way mirror is installed in the private testifying room to facilitate communication between the room and the main courtroom while the child is giving evidence.
  • The intermediary is provided with earphones to enable him/her to follow the proceedings in the courtroom.
  • The intermediary  hears the questions and relays these to the child. The child’s responses are captured on the live video link.
  • The child can neither see nor hear the accused or anyone in the courtroom. The courtroom is provided with CCTV or one-way mirrors to enable people in the court to view and hear the child and the intermediary.
  • The video is live so role players in court, including members of the public in the gallery, can see and hear the child and the intermediary as they speak. No videotape recording is made when the child gives evidence.
  • The magistrate has a clear and close view of the child and the intermediary  through a monitor that is installed on the court bench. This monitor also enables the magistrate to see when the child is tired and requires a break or nap.