Chief minister Arvind Kejriwal has said his government plans to discuss with the chief justice of the Delhi high court the issue of fast-tracking rape cases to make the national capital a safer place for women.
The decision came in the wake of the gang-rape of two minors – one aged two-and-a-half years and the other five years – in New Delhi.
The 14th Finance Commission has already endorsed a proposal for establishing 1,800 fast track courts across India over five years. A meeting of chief ministers and chief justices held in April 2013 too suggested the fast-tracking of cases related to heinous crimes.
But how easy would it be to set up fast track courts and how efficient are they in India? Will setting up fast track courts make the national capital a safer place for women?
Lack of funds
There were 1,192 fast track courts in March 2011, but as of May 2015, there are only 473 of them left – a 60% decrease. The decline was largely due to the Central government’s decision to discontinue funds in 2011.
When the Centre cut off funds, the Supreme Court asked states to either wind up the fast track courts or continue with them as a permanent feature.
Many states drastically reduced the number of such courts while 12 states closed down all their fast track courts. Here is a list of the number of fast track courts in all the states in 2005, 2011 and May 2015.
The lack of funds almost halved the number of fast track courts. Even though Kejriwal has said the necessary funds and staff will be provided, fast tracking cases will be a difficult task. How the Delhi government will set up fast track courts without aid from the Centre is a valid question.
Sluggish fast track courts
After the December 2012 gang-rape of a paramedical student, the Delhi government set up six fast track courts to deal with sexual assaults.
Two years later, these courts came in for severe criticism. Though they were supposed to speed up the judicial process, they were actually slowing it down.
While regular courts disposed of an average of 59 rape cases a month in 2010 and 54 rape cases a month in 2011, the fast track courts handled rape cases at a sluggish rate of 48 to 50 cases a month in 2013.
According to news reports, some of the causes for this irony include lack of judges, the rising number of sexual assaults and thus the increase in workload, no special training for judges and no big changes in procedures for handling with such cases.
According to a report in the Mint , as of April 2014, a total of 1,374 rape cases were still pending in these courts. The report further said the fast track courts function with existing infrastructure and no additional judges. A plan to hire additional judges, create new infrastructure and set up technological facilities and libraries has not been implemented.
Thus setting up new courts alone will not lead to speedy justice.
Kejriwal said an increase in fast track courts will lead to more convictions in rape cases. However, statistics show the conviction rate has remained steady or showed only a marginal improvement.
According to a report in the Wall Steet Journal, in 2012, a few dozen courts in Delhi completed 547 rape trials, in which 204 men were convicted – a conviction rate of 37%. Till June 2013, the fast track courts completed 299 trials, in which 95 men were convicted, a conviction rate of 32%.
This trend in not confined to the national capital. According to this report in The Indian Express, the conviction rate of Rajasthan, where fast track courts have been in place since 2005, has remained steady at about 25%.
The basic assumption in Kejriwal saying “there is no fear among those who commit such crimes” and “we will set up fast track courts” in the same breath is this – such courts will deter rapes. But this is not true.
A total of 1,562 fast track courts were functioning across the country during 2000-2005. Let us look at incidents of rape against women from 1997 to 2008.
If the assumption “speedy justice deters crime” is true, there should have been a sharp decrease in incidents of crime against women, at least during the period when the maximum number of fast track courts was functioning. But this was not the case.
Will Kejriwal be able to overcome the loopholes in the functioning of fast track courts and make Delhi a safer place for women? A lot will depend on the report submitted in 15 days by the group of ministers set up by him.