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SC seeks speed tracks for justice

New Delhi, Aug. 3: The Supreme Court not only wants to put cases on the fast track, it wants them graded as sprint, middle-distance and long-distance according to priority.

Each category will have its own deadline. The aim is to banish the marathons that have burdened the country’s courts with a backlog of 5 million cases.

A three-judge bench yesterday suggested to the Centre that criminal cases be classified under “five tracks” and set deadlines ranging from 9 to 15 months for disposal. The bench mooted a similar gradation for writ petitions and recommended ways to speed up civil cases, too.

Under the plan, which needs to be passed into law by Parliament, crimes punishable with death qualify as “Track I” cases. So do cases of rape, other sexual offences and dowry deaths. “The endeavour should be to complete the Track I cases within a period of nine months,” the court said.

Other criminal cases where the accused have been denied bail and kept in jail custody shall be on Track II and must be decided within a year.

The same 12-month deadline applies to Track III cases, which relate to “mass cheating, economic offences, illicit liquor tragedy and food adulteration”.

Terrorism-related cases under special laws like (the now revoked) Prevention of Terrorism Act, as well as drugs and corruption cases, are to be on Track IV, with a 15-month deadline.

All other criminal cases will be on Track V and must be disposed of in 15 months.

The apex court has suggested that not only trial courts but each high court, too, “classify criminal appeals pending before it into different tracks on the same lines”.

One particular case weighing on the apex court’s mind has been that of Bengal’s Ajoy Ghosh, who spent some 36 years in jail as an undertrial for an offence involving a two-year sentence.

Ever since then, successive Chief Justices of India have been voicing concern over petty criminal cases where the time the accused spends in jail waiting for trial is longer than the prison term provided for the offence.

In most such cases the accused are illiterate or poorly educated and lack the means to hire a lawyer. The apex court judgment suggested that they be allowed the services of amicus curiae or state legal aid counsel.

As for writ petitions before high courts, ones of habeas corpus must have highest priority.

“Habeas corpus” means “produce body” and is an appeal to produce a prisoner before a court, made usually when a person is picked up by police and “disappears”, or is allegedly beaten to death in custody.

The Supreme Court said high courts should issue notice at the first hearing of such writs and make them returnable within 48 hours. Which means the government or the police must respond within 48 hours of the notice being issued.

Other writ petitions are to be classified into three categories: fast-track (deadline: 6 months), normal-track (not more than a year) and slow-track. The last group of petitions, “subject to pendency of other cases in the court, should ordinarily be disposed of within a period of two years”.

In civil cases, the court of appeal should “find out if there is a possibility of a settlement” between the parties at the first hearing and the high court concerned “could make a reference to mediation or conciliation” for a settlement.

The judgment was passed by the bench of Justices Y.K. Sabharwal, D.M. Dharmadhikari and Tarun Chatterjee. They also asked the Centre to assess the burden on courts while enacting new laws.

The bench said the government should provide money and infrastructure to deal with additional cases every time a new law is passed.

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