A day in one of Ghana’s gender-based violence courts 

On a bright sunny Monday morning, suspects in remand were ushered into the Family and Juvenile Courts and Circuit Courts in the heart of Accra for the hearing of their cases. At 7.45am, people milled in and out of the courts – some had come to attend the hearings, while others were there to file lawsuits.  

At the entrance of Circuit Court Five – the gender-based violence court – a notice with the court rules read: “Please put your phone on silent or switch it off when you enter the courtroom. No phone calls are allowed in the courtroom.”  

A court official reminded people to adhere to the rules in case they missed the notice.  

Circuit Court Five is one of 64 circuit courts in Ghana which handle civil and criminal cases with the exception of treason and offences that carry the death penalty and life imprisonment. According to Section 43 of the Courts Act, 1993 (Act 459), such offences, which include rape, murder, manslaughter and treason, may only be tried by the High Court.  

The Family and Juvenile courts hear both criminal and civil cases and adjudicate in matters concerning parentage, custody and maintenance of children. They also hear cases concerning children in need of special care and protection. The first gender-based violence court was established in 2009, while the first child-friendly model court was set up in Accra in December 2018, with support from UNICEF. The child-friendly court sought to plug the gaps identified in the administration of justice in GBV cases.  

In the courtroom, judicial officers – the judge, court clerks, registrars, interpreters, orderlies, court bailiffs, police prosecutors, investigators and probation officers – took their places and the hearing of the cases began. The suspects stood in the dock with crossed arms, remaining quiet unless asked to speak, while their attorneys argued their cases.  

In child-friendly GBV courts, survivors of rape and defilement are not in the courtroom. Instead, they monitor proceedings on a screen in a separate room, while awaiting their turn to testify in a private separate room. Where children are survivors or witnesses, the court offers intermediaries to help children testify and understand the proceedings in age-appropriate language. According to UNICEF, these features protect the survivors from the secondary trauma that often comes from going through an often hostile and insensitive justice system.  

There were no interviewing sessions for children when the Ghana News Agency (GNA) visited the court.  

The prosecution and defence, while antagonistic, were civil toward each other and argued constructively while the court audience remained quiet, as they observed cases unfold. 

The courtroom was full. Some of the people in the audience understood the solemnity of the situation and sat quietly in court. 

The lawyer of one of the accused persons made his case in favour of the client as he questioned witnesses in connection with the case. 

A doctor was called to the witness box to explain the medical results of a 15-year-old girl who was raped several times by the same man. 

The suspect’s lawyer tried to reconstruct the case and find fault with the medical results to prove the innocence of his client and posed questions to prove his client was wrongly accused.  

The Judge, Mrs Christina Cann, directed the general process but did not intervene in every interaction. Judges serve as arbitrators to guarantee order in the court and ensure that no party exceeds its limits. To this end, they sometimes remind people of the power they wield, which is respected through the maintenance of order. Judge Cann watched as counsel cross-examined witnesses and only intervened when necessary. In one instance, the judge intervened when counsel for the accused asked the witness a question and the judge told him that the question was not relevant.  

Prosecutors pressed witnesses on minor details such as wording, seeking to use unreliable statements against them. During cross-examination, the prosecutor questioned the validity of the medical results that were presented to the court, describing the said doctor as not in good standing as a medical professional. 

In some instances, the judge had to stop the attorneys from asking some questions. However, the cases were generally straightforward, so there was not much confusion or need for further questioning. 

The judge adjourned some of the cases due to the absence of parties, inadequate information, and absence of key witnesses. In one case, the perpetrators were granted bail of GH¢100,000 ($7,109.53) each with two sureties, which brought the court session for the day to an end.  

The court proceedings generally reflect the application of UNICEF Ghana’s Operational Guidelines for Child-friendly Gender-Based Courts.  

These cases at Circuit Court Five are part of the 131 sexual and gender-based violence cases recorded by the Domestic Violence and Victim Support Unit (DOVVSU) of the Ghana Police Service between October 2020 and March 2021. 

Data from the Criminal Investigations Department of the Ghana Police Service also revealed that a total of 1,047 girls were defiled, while 305 women were raped in 2020 with about 1,500 cases of violence against women being reported annually. 

For these survivors, the child-friendly GBV courts not only protect them from secondary trauma but also lead to timely and efficient handling of GBV cases, according to UN Women.  

Ms Joyce Danso, a Senior Editor and Court Correspondent with the Ghana News Agency described the establishment of the GBV courts as a relief for domestic violence victims seeking justice.  

In the past, when there were no specialised courts, GBV cases were sent to allocation units and a judge would be assigned to handle the case based on his/ her expertise. GBV cases had to compete with other criminal cases such as fraud, land transactions, robbery, kidnapping, and murder, among others that were before the court, which led to crowded courtrooms. 

The regular circuit courts were also not child-friendly and the security and safety of children attending court cases were a concern.  

“There were instances where complainants had to bring along relations to the court to take care of children who had been defiled while the case was being heard. In some cases, children looked on while heavily armed Policemen escorted armed robbers to the court premises which made it difficult for many victims and complainants to seek justice,” she explained. 

In the specialised courts, victims of gender-based violence no longer have to fight for space in the regular courts and the needs of children are catered for.  

In 2021, two more GBV courts were established in Ashanti and Bono regions, while most recently in November 2022, two more were inaugurated in Damongo in the Savanna Region and in Nalerigu in the Northeast Region.  

In addition to closed-circuit cameras, child-friendly waiting areas and separate testifying rooms, the courts also have a library and toys for the children.  

The one thing Mrs Paulina L. Essel, Deputy Chief Investigator at the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice, who is also a licensed counsellor would want to see added to these courts is court-assigned psychologists and counsellors.  

She told GNA that survivors need psychological support to aid their healing, while the perpetrators need counselling as part of rehabilitation.  

This article was produced with the support of the Africa Women’s Journalism Project (AWJP) in partnership with the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) and support from the Ford Foundation. 

By Samira Larbie  

Source: GNA 

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