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The speed of justice

Address delays by providing state-of-the-art infrastructure and technical-legal support for investigative agencies.

An obvious explanation for these delayed investigations is that, whereas traditional crimes have fewer witnesses, highly technical crimes, such as financial fraud, entail gathering and analysing large volumes of documentation. An obvious explanation for these delayed investigations is that, whereas traditional crimes have fewer witnesses, highly technical crimes, such as financial fraud, entail gathering and analysing large volumes of documentation.

BY: Sidharth Luthra

Address delays by providing state-of-the-art infrastructure and technical-legal support for investigative agencies.

One of the root causes of the slow dispensation of justice is the lack of speed in investigations. Investigations that have to be concluded in months go on for years. Trials that must proceed on a daily basis take weeks or months. I will not venture to deal with all cases — my focus is on a specific area, namely, anti-corruption laws.

The mandate under Section 19 of the Prevention of Corruption Act is that investigations should be expeditious. Our Supreme Court has declared and accepted this principle, and in 1999, in Satya Narayan Sharma, held that there is no basis to stay corruption trials. The CrPC requires investigations to be concluded in 60 or 90 days, depending on the nature of the punishment for the offence.

While state police investigations tend to get concluded within the stipulated time, those by specialised agencies tend to take longer. The immediate benefit is that an accused would get default bail — a classic example of how delays benefit the accused.

To the citizen, this would seem incongruous, since specialised agencies have the advantage of being excluded from law and order duties — their focus is only on investigation.

An obvious explanation for these delayed investigations is that, whereas traditional crimes have fewer witnesses, highly technical crimes, such as financial fraud, entail gathering and analysing large volumes of documentation; only then is the complaint or chargesheet filed.

It is, therefore, time to revisit the working of specialised investigating agencies and provide for adequate infrastructure, specialised training methods, and technical and legal support to ensure that investigations are fast and effective.

The first need is training. With the changing economic scenario, there is a world of difference in the nature of financial transactions. A traditionally trained police officer may not have exposure to the complex nature of intra- or inter-state transactions.

In the Special Reference No 1 of 2012 (Presidential Reference), the Supreme Court has held that auction is not the exclusive method to effect the transfer or alienation of natural resources. That being so, a police officer testing such transactions for criminality will have to understand economic policies and test allegations of abuse of authority against norms that should exist.

The other issue that needs to be considered is scientific and technical expertise. This has to be seen at two levels. When highly technical policy matters or commercial decisions or transactions come before an investigator, he will need adequate technical support, be it through auditors, lawyers, scientists, to appreciate the nature of the transaction and whether there is any violation of law.

Some state police forces take recourse to deploying part-time experts on a case-by-case basis to assist in investigation. Such an ad hoc approach tends to negatively affect investigations and efficiency and speed are often lost. Just as investigators are trained for cyber crime, they must be trained for financial and commercial fraud.

Lastly, with the separation of the investigation from the prosecution branch, investigators often need specialised legal support, which is not always available. This leads to malpractices as well as delay, since working prosecutors do not have adequate time to deal with advisory matters as their priority is to complete daily court assignments first.

It is crucial that legally competent advice and support be made available to investigators, and legal experts be engaged to ensure that there are no technical breaches in investigations.

The second issue is that of inadequacy of courts and overburdening of judges. Court statistics relating to trial courts are often not reflective of work other than trials such as bail, remand, miscellaneous proceedings that consume large volumes of court time. Though such matters can’t really be predicted in advance, we must make allowances or allocate court time for such issues.

A stark example of change in the disposal of cases is the impact of additional CBI special courts. About five years ago, the CJI had written to the Union government for the creation of additional special courts for dealing with CBI corruption cases. A figure of 50 cases per court was proposed. The government accepted this figure and proceeded to coordinate with states to have 71 new courts, of which most are operational. Later, another 22 were sought to be added. The impact of this addition has been quite astounding. The disposal of cases since the courts were added is 50 per cent more than it was on an annual basis.

Trials in a number of such special courts proceed on a weekly basis and are concluded within months. And this is after we take into account that abuse of authority and disproportionate assets cases have a large number of witnesses and documentary evidence. These figures show that there needs to be a concerted drive to add to court numbers on an all-India basis.

Creating or nominating short-term fast-track courts is not the answer, although it is part of the solution. It is time we studied the “court/ case/ disposal” ratio for different kinds of cases and added up the numbers to buffer the criminal justice system by creating courts at the trial level and adding judges at the high-court level to ensure that the constitutional imperative of speedy justice is met.

And this planning must be futuristic, with annual or biennial reviews, with the study of the added numbers and disposal rates to ensure adequate infrastructure for the future.

The writer is senior advocate and additional solicitor general of India.

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