Delays in trial should weigh on punishment, but the problem must also be addressed systemically.
The Supreme Court’s decision to consider the delay in adjudicating a trial as a “mitigating factor” while deciding the quantum of sentence acknowledges the reality of the enormous backlog in the lower courts. It offers some relief to those who lose their legal battle after spending a large part of their lives, and resources, in court complexes.
In the present instance, the court came to the rescue of a retired bureaucrat, who, after being accused by the CBI of accepting a bribe of Rs 265 in 1984, spent nearly two decades fighting his case until the Delhi High Court dismissed his appeal last year. The SC reduced his term of imprisonment to the three months already served, levying a penalty of Rs 50,000 for the offence. While current public discourse has veered towards harsher punishment for corruption, the SC freed the ageing bribe-taker from jail, while maintaining the conviction.
The court’s magnanimity, however, cannot be deployed as a quick-fix for the institutional problem of judicial backlog. If trials are to be expedited, then systemic changes, involving efficient case-load management, lesser number of adjournments and an attitudinal change among judges, are necessary.
If those found guilty after a protracted legal battle could benefit from this verdict, there is still no system of reparation in place for persons who are found innocent after similarly long and possibly vexatious litigation against them. Superior courts must also take care to ensure this verdict does not play into the hands of lawyers who have — on behalf of well-heeled clients — gamed the criminal justice system to postpone their trials on procedural grounds.
In recent times, parallel adjudication — in the form of “fast track” courts — has been set up for “special” offences and cases involving sexual assault and corruption. While these concerns are undoubtedly grave, it is important to understand that the judiciary cannot treat “normal” cases with indifference.
The vast majority of civil and criminal cases, many of which result in undue delays and hardship to litigants, still belong to the mainstream judicial process. If the human costs of accessing justice are to be reduced — and not simply waived off at the discretion of courts — then the judiciary must tackle its problem of case backlog systemically.