Last week, Chief Justice of India R.M. Lodha observed in open court that the criminal trials of MPs and MLAs cannot be fast-tracked “at the cost” of other pending cases. The CJI was responding to a “demand from government” — articulated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Parliament — that cases against legislators be wrapped up on priority basis. Justice Lodha’s remarks have highlighted the need to balance the necessity for speedy trial of some cases that indeed merit urgent attention with the larger imperative of clearing the judicial backlog and quickening the pace of the entire justice system. As the CJI has pointed out, there is need for a more “comprehensive” approach on fast track courts (FTCs): one that looks beyond hand-picking cases based on political expediency or populist compulsions.
Fast track courts were conceived by the Eleventh Finance Commission, initially for the period 2000-05, as ad hoc institutions to address the urgent problem of backlog. Central grants to sustain their operations declined after 2005, however, finally coming to a halt six years later. The Supreme Court directed the Centre to extend FTCs beyond their initial term, but declined to reverse the government’s policy decision to stop their funding in 2011. The court said it is the “constitutional duty” of the government to provide “judicial infrastructure” to ensure that every person has access to an expeditious trial. The judiciary is facing a major shortage in personnel, both on the judicial and administrative sides, at the trial and high court levels. Given an already strained system and lack of specific support from the Central government, it should not be surprising that fast track courts have found it difficult to deliver on their original mandate. The poor performance and continuing lag in “special courts” set up in Delhi and Rajasthan to try sex crimes is a case in point.
On the other hand, the Supreme Court itself had recommended earlier this year that the criminal trials of MPs and MLAs be completed within a year. There are, arguably, advantages to legislators being singled out for a speedy, time-bound trial: it reduces the scope for political pressure on the lower courts, since the entire trial would likely be presided over by one judge and be subjected to consistent public scrutiny. Even in these cases, however, the appellate process must be respected. Clearly, the situation calls for greater cooperation between the executive and judiciary. Ways must be found to ensure that FTCs are used to address urgent cases, while seeing to it that they do not become an additional burden on the judiciary.