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Fast-track courts to try rape need infra push, studies show

In the monsoon session of Parliament ending August 10, the government replaced The Criminal Law (Amendment) Ordinance, 2018 with The Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2018. The changes involve harsher punishment for rape and will allow the government to double the number of fast-track courts.

india Updated: Aug 28, 2018 23:40 IST
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Fast-track courts,infrastructure,rape
The law ministry is currently preparing a scheme to set up more such fast-track courts, which are administered by states, and augment their resources.(Getty Images/Picture for representation)

Fast-track courts to try rape, now the preferred judicial option, need the backing of infrastructure and allied facilities to make a difference, studies and data show.

India has further toughened rape laws by amending its criminal code. In the monsoon session of Parliament ending August 10, the government replaced The Criminal Law (Amendment) Ordinance, 2018 with The Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2018. The changes involve harsher punishment for rape and will allow the government to double the number of fast-track courts.

The law ministry is currently preparing a scheme to set up more such fast-track courts, which are administered by states, and augment their resources, a government official said. The latest changes follow a sweeping overhaul initiated in the prosecution of rape offences following the horrific gang rape and murder of a Delhi woman in December 2012.

Since the 2012 gang rape and murder , rape cases have jumped 60% until 2016, the latest year for which data are available. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, trials in over 133,000 rape cases were pending in 2016. This year, the gang rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in Jammu and Kashmir’s Kathua and rape of a teenager in Uttar Pradesh’s Unnao district sparked protests.

The new changes in law increased the punishment for rape of girls below 12 years to either 20 years in jail, life imprisonment or death. In case of gang-rape of girls between 16 and 11 years, the highest punishment is a life term.

Two reports that analysed the functioning of fast-track courts have found they adhered to norms but also pointed out weaknesses in pre-trial and trial phases. Fast-track courts were first recommended by the 11th Finance Commission (2000-2005), the constitutional body that divides financial resources between the Centre and states.

After the December 2012 gang rape in Delhi, fast-track courts were adopted as the preferred means for all rape cases for speedy prosecution. There are 727 fast-track courts functioning across India, according to a reply by MoS for law and justice, PP Chaudhury, in Lok Sabha on August 8 2018 .

The latest amendments require that a probe into child rape must be completed within two months, down from three months earlier. Also, all appeals against a rape verdict must also be disposed of within six months.

Fast-track courts often face the same structural hurdles as normal courts. A study by the Partners for Law in Development (PLD), which monitored 16 cases of rape trials in four of the six fast-track courts in Delhi from February 2014 to March 2015, relies on interviews with the survivors, aged 18-50 years. Its accounts showed “inconsistency in implementing the law”, the report states.“Court practices vary, showing a degree of inconsistency in the application,” it notes.

Defence questions are “inevitably hostile”, designed to “imply consent”. Guidelines therefore require questions during cross-examination to be routed to the victim through a presiding officer. “This is not an established practice,” the study states.

Gyanant Singh, a Supreme Court advocate, said fast-track courts were indispensable in a country where rape is common. “Remember, fast-track courts are also meant to act as a deterrent. In the Indian context, fast-track courts don’t mean accused don’t get a fair trial.” He said such courts only removed delays rather than compromise on any procedure.

A review of 145 verdicts in Karnataka by the Centre for Law and Policy Research found fast-track courts didn’t have “sufficient resources”. They were also not able to deal with a key constraint: the very high incidence of both complainants and witnesses turning hostile.

First Published: Aug 28, 2018 22:48 IST