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Child offender records strictly confidential says State Counsel

Jun 6, 2011, 1:24 PM | Article By: Sainey M.K. Marenah

A state counsel at the Attorney General's Chambers under the Ministry of Justice has told a group of young people and adolescents at the recent inter-generational dialogue forum held at the Friendship Hotel in Bakau that the records of a child offender are kept strictly confidential.

Fatou Bittaye stated that cases involving children are encouraged by the Children's Act to be disposed of by means of settlement instead of going through the tedious process of a trial.

"However this only applies if the offence involved is a misdemeanor like petty theft, disorderly conduct etc., and it does not apply for serious crimes like murder, manslaughter or rape," she added.

Presenting a paper on the topic: "How child-friendly is the Gambian juvenile justice system", Ms Bittaye said that the minimum age of criminal responsibility in The Gambia is 12 years, noting that a boy or girl from 12 years and above who commits an offence can be punished by law.

According to her, unlike an adult, a child who commits an offence, except that of treason or an offence for which a child is jointly charged with an adult, will only be subjected to the child justice system.

This, she added, means that different set of rules will apply to children in terms of arrest, detention, and court proceedings compared to an adult.

Citing examples which demonstrate the friendly and flexible nature of the juvenile justice system in The Gambia, Ms Bittaye told the forum that, unlike an adult, when a child is arrested, the police are required to inform the child's parent or guardian and the Child Welfare Unit, and that those people are required to be present at the time the child is being interviewed.

"This is to ensure that the rights of child are protected at all times," she noted.

Counsel Bittaye further noted that another example which demonstrates the friendly and flexible nature of the juvenile justice system of The Gambia is the Children's Court, which sits at the Kanifing Magistrates' Court presided over by a magistrate as a member of a two-person panel.

"Unlike the rigid rules of procedure in the regular courts, the Children's Court is quite flexible in its proceedings, because it is aimed at serving and protecting the best interests of a child. For example, in a normal court, anyone is allowed to attend a matter being heard before the court, but proceedings in the juvenile court are very restricted, and are only open to the persons that are directly concerned in the case," Ms Bittaye added.

She revealed that another feature which also demonstrates the friendly nature of the Children's Court is the sentencing procedure.

"If a child admits to committing an offence or the court finds that the child has committed an offence, the court will encourage the child to explain the reasons for the conduct, and before deciding on how to deal with him or her, the court obtains information with regards to the child's general conduct, his home surroundings, school record, and his medical history which will be prepared by a Social Welfare worker," she further stated.

This, she went on, enables the court to act in the interest of the child when deciding on the appropriate sentence for the child.