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A longer haul

Barring high-profile exceptions, fast-track courts have failed to deliver in sexual assault cases.

A Mumbai sessions court may have delivered its verdict in the Shakti Mills gangrape case in “record time”, as Maharashtra Home Minister R.R. Patil put it. But it would be premature to conclude that justice has now become swift and effective in all instances of sexual violence.

The Shakti Mills gangrape trial was “fast tracked” on account of the public outrage that followed in its wake. Meanwhile, similar cases across the country have been languishing in courts despite the government’s efforts to expedite rape trials. In Delhi alone, for instance, 1,100 rape cases were pending trial last year in the six new special courts created to tackle sex crimes. Nearly 24,000 such cases are pending in the Supreme Court and high courts, according to the law ministry’s figures for 2013. Without adequate infrastructure and qualified judges, many of the fast-track courts are ill-equipped to deal with the huge volume of cases.

Fast-track courts do offer the comforting illusion that some cases — deemed to be deserving of “special” treatment — can be processed within an abbreviated time frame. This approach begs the question: if courts can effectively manage their work flow for a certain category of offences, why can’t they do so for all? Further, a parallel adjudication of sexual offences may deliver results but it does not always guarantee a fair trial. In Rajasthan’s fast-track courts, for instance, the conviction rate in rape cases sank to 18 per cent in 2011, the lowest in a decade. An alarming number of such cases adjudicated by fast-track courts have been overturned on appeal.

With a deadline hanging over their heads, police and lower courts are under pressure to gather evidence and process it without due consideration.

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The 2013 criminal law amendments, enacted after the Delhi gangrape, require trial courts to hear sexual offence cases on a day-to-day basis, and conclude proceedings within two months of the police filing the chargesheet. The uphill struggle to implement these requirements not only casts the judiciary in poor light, but also highlights the need to avoid knee-jerk solutions. Backlog, whether in rape cases or other offences, can only be tackled by filling existing vacancies with competent judges and appointing court managers proficient in the use of communications technology. The government has spent considerable resources in setting up fast-track courts across the country, only to see them clog up. Money and energies would be better spent training judges and registry officials.

First published on: 22-03-2014 at 12:15:16 am
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