|Even as India applauds the swift conviction & sentencing of the 5 accused in the Delhi rape case, over 23,000 rape victims are still fighting it out for justice at various high courts with around 1 lakh cases still pending across the country as of 2012.
The gruesome incident in Delhi last December led to a national outcry and 6 fast-track courts being set up for the speedy trial of cases related to crimes against women. It takes an average of 4-5 years, at times even a decade or more for a verdict to be delivered in a rape case in India. But the trial time in such courts has reduced to 8-9 months.
While that is a massive improvement, the more pertinent question to ask is whether India has adequate number of fast-track courts to expeditiously tackle the massive backlog of pending cases in the system?
Data shows the country had 1192 fast-track courts (dealing with all crimes) as of 31st March 2011, much lower than the 1562 that were operational as of March 2005. This is despite the fact that over 3 crore cases are pending in Indian courts.
Numbers apart, the problem with fast-track courts is also that the system allocates existing judges and prosecutors from within the system to handle cases without actually increasing the number of judges available. This risks ‘slow-tracking’ other trials as a lawyer pointed out to the Wall Street Journal.
India’s judges to population ratio is an abysmal 15.5 judges to 1 million people and the law ministry has recommended that it be increased to at least 50. But the number of vacancies for the position of judges in our system shows, this could be easier said than done.
A PRS Legislative Research shows that the working strength of the High Court judges was 613 as against the sanctioned strength of 895 judges. This reflects a 32% vacancy of judges across various High Courts in the country. At the subordinate level, the sanctioned strength of judges as of September 2011 was 18,123 as against a working strength of 14,287 judges, i.e a 21% vacancy.
Shortage of prosecutors and judges seems to be increasing the backlog of cases in fast-track courts as well. According to a WSJ report the backlog of rape cases awaiting trial in Delhi has increased from 1400 cases in January to 1670 cases in August.
Also while fast-track courts expadite trials, conviction rape rates have remained poor at around the 25-35% levels depending on the state. The Indian Express quoting officials from the advocate general’s office reports that trials expedited in fast-track courts have often been overturned in the high court in Rajasthan. In fact the Express reports that of the 23 cases Additional Sessions Judge Yogesh Khanna heard this year at the Saket court, in 20 cases, the accused were acquitted because of inadequate evidence.
Evidently, fast-track courts are only a part solution and a lot more needs to be done to to bring swift justice to the thousands of other rape victims who’ve had their trials delayed indefinitely. Activists are demanding dedicated courts for crimes against women, a better staffed judiciary and an overhaul of the Criminal Code of Procedure as among the many judicial reforms needed for quick disposal of rape cases. Else, the fear is that the Nirbhaya case will remain exception rather than the rule.