Fast-track courts (FTC) in India are increasingly getting sluggish. The FTCs were established to expeditiously dispose of long-pending cases in the sessions courts and long-pending cases of undertrial prisoners. Despite spending as much as Rs 2,993 crore from 2016 to 2019, the results have not been encouraging. Speedy justice now forms a part of fundamental rights and the FTCs were supposed to cater to it but are performing much below expectations.
The National Law University, Delhi, has been entrusted a study by the Ministry of Law and Justice, Delhi, on the issues afflicting the performance of FTCs. In a base line survey of FTCs, researchers highlight some crucial factors.
The FTC system in India works on contingency. In fact, the term ‘fast-track’ is a misnomer. The criteria, method and arrangements to track the cases in a faster mode remain quite tentative. Besides, over the years, the number of cases allotted to them have also increased, which has led to slowing down of the decision process. Further, the term itself indicates that the justice delivery system is generally slow. Another problem is that there are insufficient number of fast track courts for the number of cases that are required to be disposed. This leads to overburdening of the courts and causes delay in disposal of cases.
All this is compounded by the fact that FTCs follow the same procedural laws that are followed by regular courts. Moreover, even if a case in a FTC is disposed of within the time specified by procedure, cases which are appealed to the high courts and the Supreme Court are not fast-tracked at those stages.
In addition, designated staff working solely in a FTC is not always present. Sometimes, staff from other (regular) courts end up working in FTCs as well. Staff working in some FTCs are on contractual appointments; so they can leave at any time, and they do not completely understand their responsibilities. The solution is to offer such staff permanent appointments. Furthermore, if some staff go on leave, a shortage arises, as a replacement is not usually given quickly.
There is a variation among states on the types of cases dealt with by FTCs in their jurisdiction. FTCs in Delhi mostly deal with cases of rape with and without murder, sexual assault against women, and cases involving vulnerable victims. But in West Bengal, the FTCs presently deal with all types of cases.
Another issue is that certain categories of offences are singled out over others, and thus are given more importance by being allotted to and decided by FTCs. However, the basis of giving priority to some cases has not been thought through before implementation. It is a fact that all litigations have the right to fast delivery of justice. But this phenomenon of fast-tracking of some cases has led to slowing down others.
Further, some FTCs do not have the equipment needed to conduct video and audio recordings of victims. Designated Vulnerable Victims Deposition Complexes, where testimonies can be conducted, are set up only in few court complexes. Since a different level of sensitivity is required to hear and handle such cases, such designated rooms provide a conducive atmosphere and great comfort to vulnerable victims to share their thoughts in a free manner. It is of utmost concern that witnesses are sometimes threatened by the system and so do not appear before the courts. This shows that the way the system treats victims who seek legal redress has to be readdressed.
In the police part of the system, there are no designated investigating officers who only investigate cases filed in FTCs. Investigating officers also do normal policing duties, so their time is shared. Additionally, if an accused is in custody (rather than on bail), then police tend to work faster. Further, if offences take place in different parts of the country, then also it takes more time.
The forensic science laboratories, which are crucial to the working of FTCs, are highly understaffed and not well-equipped. They deal with reports relating to both regular courts and FTCs. This leads to delay in submitting expert reports to courts.
Additionally, FTC personnel are not given training specific to cases and offences that they will deal with while working in such courts. There is also a lack of adequate funds being given to FTCs to appoint sufficient staff and to have modern infrastructure like computers, audio-video recording devices, air-conditioning equipment, etc. In many cases, even basic infrastructure, like cupboards to keep files, is not available. The sorry state of the system is further borne out by the fact that most cases filed before such courts result in acquittals.
Merely increasing the number of FTCs to overcome their shortage is not the answer. The need is to revamp the system based on micro-level studies with the stakeholders. The FTCs cannot be allowed to routinely function like ordinary courts. Further, both internal as well as external factors affecting FTCs should be considered while deciding the issue of delay in justice.
Every litigant is entitled to speedy justice. A balance is to be made among the rights of the victims and that of the accused. The right of the accused cannot be brushed aside. Not much jurisprudence has been developed on a compensation scheme for wrongly accused persons. Further, victim-centric procedures and measures differ considerably beyond capital cities of states.
For wholesome effectiveness, even the corresponding parts of the system, such as the investigation, filing of charge sheet, the forensic reports and appeals must also be fast-tracked.
(Bajpai is Professor and Chairperson, Centre for Criminology & Victimology and Smrithi Krishna Prasad is a researcher at National Law University, Delhi)