There have been 9,768 convictions in Bihar over the past 15 months (January 2006-March 2007), suggesting that the dispensation of criminal justice in the state is well and truly on a fast track. But is this great push forward leading to miscarriage of justice? Is there any evidence at hand to establish the veracity of the adage, justice hurried is justice buried?
Not at all, says Additional Director General of Police (Headquarters) Abhayanand, who monitors criminal cases on behalf of the Nitish Kumar Government. "The trial process has not been curtailed. What fast track courts are doing is to hold hearings continuously once a trial starts instead of giving long dates. This is one reason why trials don't drag on," he explains.
The other reason, the ADG maintains, is the urgency being displayed by the state in producing witnesses. "We first tasted a high rate of success in the Arms Act cases, in which witnesses are mainly from the police and, as such, do not turn hostile under pressure. This convinced witnesses in other types of cases to come forward, leading to more convictions," he maintains.
At the other extreme of the opinion spectrum is the Bihar State Bar Council chairman Rajendra Prasad Singh. "The fact is that in a large number of cases innocent persons are being victimised by the police and getting wrongly convicted. As the real culprits go free, the common man is finding it difficult to even lodge an FIR," he complains.
Not true, says Patna High Court advocate and social activist Basant Kumar Chaudhary. "For many years prior to 2005, the prosecution showed little interest in pursuing trials or in producing witnesses. Now, cases are being e-monitored by the police headquarters and by Justice Aftab Alam at the High Court level," submits the founder of public watchdog, Lok Morcha.
An improved witness protection programme, according to Chaudhary, has enabled the state to produce many more witnesses during trial and attain a higher conviction rate. "The best evidence of this is to be found in the recent conviction of high profile persons, against whom no witnesses were available earlier," he points out.
But this is not to suggest that everything is hunky dory. "In my experience as a human rights activists, there is miscarriage of justice in 20 per cent of cases mainly because prosecution witnesses are given more weightage than defence witnesses. Quick disposal means more such wrongful convictions but thankfully such cases have not grown in terms of percentage," he explains.
Chaudhary's perception is shared by Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Bihar Assembly and high-profile criminal lawyer Shakeel Ahmad Khan. "There is nothing so far to suggest that the percentage of bad convictions has gone up significantly because of speedy trial. But we have to be overly cautious that the idea of fair trial is not diluted," he says.
Bihar's top law officer, Advocate General PK Shahi, could not agree more. "All we are doing is to pursue cases as the state is expected to do but erstwhile regimes were not doing. Nothing extra or excessive is being done to raise fears about miscarriage of justice. A small percentage of exceptions will always be there. But all in all, it is good, solid work," he insists.
But the final word on the subject comes from former Patna High Court Acting Chief Justice S Sarvar Ali. "When justice is delivered at a rapid pace, some mistakes are inevitable. What is crucial is that supervising and monitoring officials in both the executive and the judiciary should always be alive to this risk and make efforts to guard against it," he suggests.