The testimonial competence of children: A need for law reform in South Africa
Modern-day research studies conducted on the victimisation of children in South Africa show that South African children in particular experience and witness exceptionally high levels of crime and consequently represent a significant portion of the victims and witnesses that have to appear in court to testify about these crimes. In South Africa, as in many other countries, a child is, however, permitted to testify in a criminal court only once the presiding officer is satisfied that the child is competent to be a witness. The competency test, though, presents a critical initial challenge for child witnesses, as it focuses on their ability to answer questions about the concepts of truth and lies. These inquiries can be intimidating and confusing, especially to younger children, and may result in children who would otherwise have been capable of giving evidence being prevented from giving their testimony. Various legal and psychological fraternities have accordingly called for the abolition or amendment of the truth-lie competency requirement. Recent psychological research about the potential of a child to lie has once again raised fundamental questions about the competency inquiry, suggesting that an assessment of children's understanding of truth and lies has no bearing on whether the child will in fact provide truthful evidence in court. These empirical findings precipitated the amendment of competency rules by various countries such as the United Kingdom and Canada. The findings likewise raise serious questions and or doubt about the suitability of the South African competency requirements. The purpose of this paper is to review the current South African position with a view to proposing suggestions for meaningful legal reform.
Keywords: Testimonial competence of children; sections 162, 164 and 170A of the Criminal Procedure Act 51 of 1977; intermediary; truth-lie test.