Fast-track Courts Doing More Harm Than Good: Experts
Close to two decades ago, the federal government came up with the idea of having Fast Track Courts (FTC) to expedite the process in cases of crimes against women and reduce the backlog of lakhs of cases within the judiciary. Even after the central government released funds to build FTCs, over 14 states and some Union Territories still don’t have any. We are at a lack of about 1,023 FTCs across the country to try cases related to the sexual violence on children and women, the law ministry estimated.
SHORTAGE OF FTCs
Where some states like Gujarat, Rajasthan, Karnataka, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh and Kerala have rejected the idea of FTCs, there are some that have no special courts like Assam and Odisha which are also the state that feature in the list of having the most number of crimes reported against women. The capital city of Delhi has 14 FTCs but it needs 63 courts in total. The only state to have more FTCs than needed is Uttar Pradesh with 273 FTCs, when it needed 212. Tamil Nadu, Kerala, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh also have a decent number of FTCs.
The 14th finance commission stated that centre wants to set up 1800 FTCs at a cost of 4,144 crores to conduct trials of cases of women, children and the elderly. It also directed the state governments to use the additional funds but to no cognizance.
While there is a shortage of FTCs, it isn’t the only answer to support the over-burdened higher courts, say experts. They say that the delay in justice is a deeper issue and needs to have an overall revamping of the system. Lawyers and experts also have an opinion that FTCs have done more harm to the justice system than it did any good.
THE DEEPER ISSUE OF FTC
“Certainty of justice, time frame and application of the law cannot be seen in isolation of one another in any case in any court including FTCs. Delay in justice does not happen because of delays in courts though it can be responsible. However, there could be lots of external factors such as delay in charge sheet, accused absconding, non-availability of witnesses, etc. So, despite putting the name of a fast track court, cases can still be delayed,” said noted litigator at Madras High Court, Geeta Ramaseshan to SheThePeople.TV.
Every litigant whether in an FTC or any other court entitles to speedy justice. Calling one court faster than the other doesn’t really help as most litigants don’t have control over situations, said Ramaseshan.
“We cannot decrease the backlog with FTCs. It is far more complicated. If you are looking at the overall caseload in India then the government is the largest litigant and the governments don’t settle matters easily unlike private cases.
The term fast-track itself seems like a great misnomer. How does one single out certain categories over the others? For example, you can say that crimes against women can be under FTC but why not murder? So when we start using terms like fast-track courts, then we accept that the justice delivery system is extremely slow. It has failed us but at the same time not sure whether these courts deliver the justice system well and there is nothing clear on that,” she added.
FTC ALONE NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR SPEED
Adding to this conversation on how the FTCs are a façade to trick the public into thinking that the process is accelerated, Executive Director of Partners for Law in Development, Madhu Mehra said, “The term fast-track is deceptive because the designated courts need to adhere to the general rules of fair trial. The delays in the legal process don’t happen only because the courts give long dates or allow adjournments. We need to also look at the other agencies that feed the courts like the investigation, police, forensic laboratories. The charge sheets and forensic reports may not be on time, the defence lawyers may hold-up the case or transfer of judges may happen.
Yet, it’s fair to say that the judge to population ratio is abysmally low in India, which obviously slows down the capacity of the legal system to conclude a matter.”
Recent media report shows that we have an all-time high number of vacancies in the lower and district courts. We are at a shortage of almost 6000 judges. 5,984 judges’ posts were vacant in the subordinate judiciary against a sanctioned strength of 22,677 across the country as on 1 December, 2017. This results in more than 2.61 crore pending cases. However, vacancies in subordinate courts at 26% are still better than High Courts, which is at 36%. Supreme Court has 19% vacancy with six of the 31 sanctioned posts vacant.
FAKE CASES IN FTCs
Lawyer Tanveer Ahmed Mir, who lead defence counsel in Aarushi Talwar murder case and the 2G spectrum case, has a different point of view. He says “FTCs are appropriate and we need them in large numbers that is because of a very central issue of the shortage of judges per million citizens in the country.
In my experience in Delhi, FTC courts generally have sexual assault cases which deal with Section 376. But those cases result in 99% acquittals because of fabrication in almost all cases that come to courts. Disgruntled women file these cases out of broken relationships. Out of 10 cases heard in an FTC every day merely two are of forcible rape.”
However, Senior Advocate, Rebecca Mammen John feels that FTCs are a political gimmick. “When the government doesn’t have any answers then it says death penalty and fast-track courts and like gullible idiots, we as citizens lap it up. Also, we look at FTCs from the prism of metropolitan cities like Delhi and Mumbai but India is larger than that. Outside of these cities, FTCs are virtually non-existent, and in many cases, they are inundated with so much work that the speed is still very slow. The problem is not one of fast-tracking every case.”
HOW PRIORITIZATION OF FTC CASES WORK
John also endorsed Ramaseshan’s view of how to judge what case to go for the fast-track courts. “How do we prioritize that some cases must go to fast-track courts and others must not? Don’t all litigations have the constitutional right to fast delivery of justice? I find this prioritization offensive. It creates an unnecessary burden on other courts who have to accommodate for these FTCs. Essentially judges are not coming from outer space, they belong to the same pool of judges. And if you are going to extract a few of them and make them into an FTC then their regular work gets distributed to already over-burdened courts. Therefore, it produces extra pressure on all courts.”
Ultimately, she says that in the interest of fast-tracking some cases the government is slow tracking others to an extent that is unredeemable.
Talking about priorities further and how it affects the citizens, John says, “Firstly, we don’t have an adequate number of judges and more and more cases are reported every day of a different milieu. There are special courts for corruption matters then there are other special courts that deal with politicians who are corrupt. Our priorities are so warped that in the end, it is the ordinary, poor, vulnerable citizen of the country who ends up with no justice.”
The government needs to strengthen and demand accountability of the law-enforcing agencies in relation to how they deal with cases of sexual violence. We have grossly under-staffed forensic laboratories, and not enough to respond to the work demanded of them. The other critical issue in relation to sexual violence cases is how the system treats victims who seek legal redress.
SOME SOLID SOLUTIONS
Now coming to some resolves that may actually prove beneficial for litigations, Mehra says, “The government needs to strengthen and demand accountability of the law-enforcing agencies in relation to how they deal with cases of sexual violence. We have grossly under-staffed forensic laboratories, and not enough to respond to the work demanded of them. The other critical issue in relation to sexual violence cases is how the system treats victims who seek legal redress.
There are reports of delayed FIRs, political pressures, intimidation of victims and a system that despite the legislative changes, continues to treat poor, marginalised victims with scant regard. Victim-centric procedures and measures, including compensation, is mostly on paper if we look beyond the capital cities. All these issues are as important, if not more, than delays in the legal process.”
Furthermore, John adds that we need a far more rigorous solution than these cut-past formulas. “The solution lies in infrastructure, it lies in financial investment, appointment of judges. We are working at one-third our strength,” said John.
We tried approaching Department of Justice for responses on the working of Fast Track Court but did not get an answer.
Image Credit: india.com