India's fast-track courts for rape not up to speed

Interviews show quality, success of the 400 courts vary widely; huge case backlog remains

NEW DELHI • Fast-track courts set up in India to speed prosecution of rape cases have not had the dramatic impact that advocates hoped for, interviews show.

India toughened its rape and sexual violence law three years ago after a brutal gang rape led to a widespread outcry and a national debate about violence against women. It also launched an effort to fast-track rape cases and other crimes against women mired in the overburdened judicial system, with 399 courts set up across the nation.

Interviews with lawyers, activists and prosecutors show the quality and success of the courts, which are administered by the states, vary widely.

OVERBURDENED SYSTEM

The fast-track courts are functional but they don't exclusively try only women's cases, even the ones that were meant to try just those, because the caseload is so huge. 

MR VIKAS SAINI, a probation officer in the state of Haryana.

Some reported that trials referred to the fast-track system were concluding more quickly, while others said they did not see an improvement. Others described proceedings bogged down by long waits for forensic evidence, police reports and repeated adjournments, with witnesses turning hostile and refusing to testify because they have settled the matter with the family of a suspect.

According to an amendment to the law, rape cases must be heard daily and be concluded within two months after charges are filed.

"The fast-track courts are functional but they don't exclusively try only women's cases, even the ones that were meant to try just those, because the caseload is so huge," said Mr Vikas Saini, a probation officer in the state of Haryana. Mr Saini said disposal rates have increased, but "it really depends on the investigation and the police".

The country's capital of New Delhi, which has more rapes than any other city, has a backlog of 3,487 cases in its fast-track courts, officials said, with some cases languishing for three years.

But Law and Justice Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said the courts are having a positive impact: The national conviction rate for rape cases rose a percentage point to 28 per cent between 2013 and 2014, according to the National Crime Records Bureau.

A study of 10 fast-track rape courts in the southern state of Karnataka by the Centre for Law and Policy Research in Bangalore told a different story. Courts there returned a 17 per cent conviction rate, lower than the national average. The study found that 80 per cent of acquittals happened because witnesses recanted their testimony, in part because there was little police protection for them. Nor was there additional training for judges and prosecutors or dedicated courtrooms.

"What we found surprising was there was nothing that distinguished these courts in any way from regular courts," said Ms Jayna Kothari, one of the study's authors. "There's no use setting up these courts if there's no way to differentiate them from the rest of the criminal justice system."

This was not the first time India has turned to fast-track courts to address the woes of its court system, plagued by judge shortages, unruly lawyers and ageing infrastructure. The first effort at fast-tracking cleared over three million cases but lost steam due to funding cuts in 2011. Critics said the courts provided a quick fix but there were better ways of addressing the system's failures, like adding more judges.

India plans to spend US$615 million (S$824 million) in the next five years on 1,800 fast-track courts for women, children, the elderly and other vulnerable populations, officials said.

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 17, 2016, with the headline 'India's fast-track courts for rape not up to speed'. Print Edition | Subscribe