The decisions of the Delhi High Court in the cases arising out of the murders of Priyadarshini Mattoo and Jessica Lall are welcome in more ways than one. These cases have focused the attention of the nation with regard to the plight of the criminal justice system and also brought about public awareness about the critical importance of dispensation of criminal justice in the country.
Criminal justice is nothing but a civilised alternative to fighting on the streets. If, however, the criminal courts were not to dispense justice effectively and expeditiously, it would only result in citizens resorting to settling their disputes outside the court. This disturbing trend is already visible, where in a number of cases the accused persons are gunned down after acquittal within the court-compounds.
Barometer of civil society
The extent to which a nation is civilised, is determined by the way its criminal courts and prisons function. Yet, the courts cannot function any better than the facilities that are provided to them. The courts have neither the requisite staff nor the state-of-the-art equipment required for adjudication of cases in this supersonic age. A country which prides itself with the largest BPO industry in the world and transcribes millions of bytes of technical data overnight without a flaw or fault, does not even provide a photocopier, a computer or Internet facilities to the criminal courts.
On an average, a criminal court takes over two years to supply copies of documents to the accused. A much more complex process, so admirably performed by the BPO industry of our country in less than 12 hours, even for a clerical or a mechanical process takes 24 months for the criminal court to accomplish. This, despite the fact that we have dedicated judges, who are not only competent, but possess outstanding analytical abilities.
Crushed under their own weight
In the US, a criminal court has no more than about five cases on its daily board. A criminal court in Delhi (the situation could be much worse in other parts of the country) has over a hundred cases on its board every day. No wonder they are neither able to fix the time of hearing in each case nor can they indicate the likely time when the witnesses’ statements could be recorded. To cope with the magnitude of work, the judges even permit recording of evidence by the court-staff independently, in their presence, and intervene only when a loud protest is made by one side or the other. Still, even with this infraction, not more than 30-50 pages of evidence can be recorded in a day on ramshackle typewriters or in long-hand by the judges or their staff. Compare this to audio-visual recording facility provided to the criminal courts in more developed countries, with shorthand machines and staff of at least a dozen per court which record upwards of 500 pages of evidence per day.
Plight of witnesses
In India, independent and honest witnesses have almost deserted the criminal courts. This is because of the harassment they are put through, first in the police stations and then in the courts. Neither the police nor the judiciary seems to realise that it is they who need the witnesses more than the witnesses needing them. A witness is, in fact, doing a public service by not only bearing with the inconvenience but also showing the courage and determination to serve the cause of justice. The judge can discover the truth only through the eyes and ears of a witness and yet neither the courage nor the sacrifice of an honest and independent witness is recognised or appreciated. All that they get are threats from the police, threats from the accused and admonition from the courts.
There is no place either in the police station or in the courts for witnesses to sit, without the hostile glares (and much worse) from the accused and their henchmen. They can neither have the facility of telephone nor newspapers while they cool their heels in the dark and dingy corridors, waiting for their case to be called. No wonder, most witnesses lose their patience and fail to turn up to depose. After all, how many times and for how many years will you be able to maintain your commitment to the cause of justice?
I am glad that the High Court has praised the conduct of a witness in Jessica Lall’s case. I am sure this witness has displayed exemplary courage. How one wishes that others at the party were less selfish. We must remember that if we continue to sleep when our neighbour is attacked, no one is going to come to our rescue when we are under siege.
I am, however, deeply disturbed over the treatment meted out to some of the witnesses by the criminal justice system. Some
of the witnesses, who were outright victims of violence and lost their entire families, again became victims of the State and the system which failed to protect them. The victims were further victimised when, during the trial, the State either colluded with the accused or showed downright ineptitude in failing to protect these witnesses from threats from the accused. If they changed their statements, as the only way of self-preservation, they did not deserve to go to prison for this.
The system took no action against those who threatened these innocent victims, but again chose to soft-target the poor witnesses, left defenceless after their families were snatched, to again go to prison. That is some kind of rough justice. Similarly wholesale notices to witnesses on the basis of unsigned statements recorded by the police can also be counter productive.
Criminal justice: top priority
Two appeals-against-acquittals having been allowed in high-profile cases is nothing much for the society to celebrate. We need to spare a thought for the parties involved in 2.4 crore cases pending in the courts; 1.4 crore fresh cases are filed every year; three cases are filed every second when the courts are functioning. Property matters of hundreds of crores have remained pending for over three decades. Hundreds in death-rows are awaiting the final verdict for over a decade. Life-convicts are serving out their sentences in prison even before their innocence or guilt is pronounced.
Until we can streamline our criminal justice system and ensure speedy justice in each and every case, from the poorest to the weakest, our job will not be done.
(The writer is a senior advocate.)