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NEED FOR SPEED

The nationwide outrage over the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman in Delhi has led to a call for speedy trial of grievous criminal cases. Responding to the public outcry, the government recently announced that it would set up 1,800 fast track courts to deal with heinous crimes, especially those committed against women.

But the question being asked is how effective these courts are. Some believe that for a country plagued by a huge shortage of judges and lack of adequate judicial infrastructure, fast track courts will not necessarily translate into speedy justice.

Fast track courts are presided over by the judges of sessions courts (district level courts that deal with criminal cases). The judges are taken out of a general pool of judges heading regular sessions courts, thus adding to the backlog of cases that are still to be resolved.

“In India, there are 11 judges per million people as against the ideal ratio of 60 judges. The government should first appoint more judges before setting up fast track courts,” argues Supreme Court advocate Rebecca Mammen John.

In the past one month, six regular sessions courts in Delhi have been converted to fast track courts to hear rape cases, including the December 16 incident of gang rape and murder. These courts have disposed of 24 cases of sexual assault on women in past three weeks. But in the process of giving priority to a particular kind of crime, other cases are being pushed to the sidelines, lawyers complain.

“For example, three terrorist-related cases were to be heard in a sessions court at Tis Hazari on January 17. But on the date of the hearing, we were told that this particular court is now a fast track one and all its previous cases have been transferred to another sessions court. The hearing has now been pushed to February because the other court complains its hands are already full with older cases,” says Delhi-based lawyer N.D. Pancholi.

The concept of fast track courts to speed up the judiciary system gathered ground in 1999. Around 1,743 courts were set up to take up sessions cases pending for two years or more and the cases of undertrials on priority. In a span of 10 years, fast track courts disposed of around 28 lakh cases out of the 35 lakh cases that were transferred to them.

Some experts feel that only fast track courts can lead to speedy justice. “People have lost faith in the judiciary system because of long delays in trials. Fast track courts give people the hope that there is light on the other side of the tunnel,” says former Justice Patri Basanna Gouda of Bangalore, who was one of the members of a committee that set up fast track courts in Karnataka in 2000.

In West Bengal, 88 fast track courts were set up recently to hear cases of crimes against women. “Matters that can be tried taking prima facie evidence should be heard in fast track courts to reduce the pendency of litigation,” Calcutta-based advocate Chitra Bhanu Gupta says.

But others argue that giving some crimes priority over others is a violation of a citizen’s right to justice. “By fast tracking some cases and ignoring others, the judiciary sends out a wrong message to the public that some cases are more important than others,” John holds.

A fast track court doesn’t always deliver speedy justice either. For example, a 1997 case of gang rape of a 26-year-old woman by seven men at a hostel in Rajasthan University was heard in a fast track court but the verdict of 10 years of rigorous imprisonment for all the accused was delivered only in October last year.

Lawyers believe that adjournments in fast track courts should be monitored by the higher courts. “The high court of each state should monitor the functioning of the sessions courts. Judges of the fast track courts should be hauled up for giving multiple adjournments,” maintains N. Santosh Hegde, former Supreme Court justice and former Lokayukta, Karnataka.

There are other problems with fast track justice too. Sometimes, cases are disposed of so fast that they can lead to miscarriage of justice. Experts worry that there’s pressure on fast track courts to deliver justice at the earliest. Earlier this month, a 10-day trial led to a Delhi fast track court awarding the death penalty to a 60-year-old farmhouse guard for raping and killing a three-year-old girl two years ago.

Lawyers object to such hurried trials. “The court should give enough time to both the prosecution and the defence to present witnesses during a preliminary hearing and also for cross-examining each other’s witnesses,” John stresses.

Indeed, there was criticism of a fast track court which was hearing the Best Bakery Case of the 2002 Gujarat riots. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) submitted a special leave petition in the Supreme Court against the verdict of the fast track court, which acquitted all the 21 accused in the case relating to the murder of 14 Muslims. It said the judge had made no effort to ascertain why witnesses had turned hostile. The NHRC also raised strong objections to why there was no effective cross examination of witnesses who contradicted their earlier written propositions.

In Mumbai, too, questions are often raised about the fast track courts. In 2005, around 15 such courts were set up for speedy justice in rape, murder and dacoity cases. “But in more than 50 per cent of cases, the high court overturned the conviction by the fast track courts. Cases tried by fast track courts are usually cases of hurried and buried justice,” Mumbai-based advocate Yug Chaudhry states.

Some experts also question the sustainability of these fast track courts. Initially, the fast track courts were partially funded by the Centre but in 2011, the funding of all fast track courts stopped. More than 70 per cent of the fast track courts across the country were shut down as the states couldn’t afford to run them. “I doubt the seriousness of the government on fast track courts as these announcements were made only to lessen public anger,” holds Colin Gonsalves, founder, Human Rights Law Network.

Swift judgments in fast track courts do not necessarily mean succour for the victim either. Often, cases get stuck in a high court and then the Supreme Court when the defence teams file an appeal.

Of course, there is also the belief that unless courts speed up justice, the huge backlog of cases will only get bigger. Some top retired judges feel that the entire judiciary system should be put on a faster track to ensure certainty of punishment. “We have to create more courts and appoint more qualified judges to speed up the justice delivery system. Creating a few fast track courts will not serve the purpose,” former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, J.S. Verma, stresses.

The government, however, is confident that the legal infrastructure will soon be improved. “I have written to the Prime Minister asking for a good sum of money for building more court rooms and for appointing more judges,” Union law minister Ashwani Kumar states.

Till then, the debate on the overall efficacy of fast track courts will continue.