This article is part of a special series: Safety of women in Indian cities
With inputs from Raj Machhan, Shuriah Niazi and Sri Krishna
In 2012, the Karnataka government set up ten special fast track courts for trying cases of rape and sexual assault under Section 376 of the IPC. In 2015, Karnataka was allotted a whopping amount of Rs 218.72 crore as part of the Government of India’s plan to set up 1800 fast track courts (FTC) across the country. The primary intent behind setting up these FTCs was to ensure a speedier sentence and justice for crimes against women and children, especially around rape and sexual harassment as well as under Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act.
However, in Karnataka many of the temporary courts were converted to fast track courts but have not really helped fast track cases. According to the data pointers in the Supreme Court’s ‘Court News’, the number of working judges increased between 2012 and 2017 but pending cases did not reduce.
FTCs are normal courts which are specially designated as Special Courts. They have been given this special status without any special powers and they follow the same procedure as normal courts under Procedural Laws.
“Fast track courts also designated as Special Courts have been constituted for three purposes in Karnataka: to deal with Sexual Assault and Rape against Women, to deal with cases relating to Child Sexual Abuse and to deal with Motor Accident Claims,” explains Dr Avinash Dadhich, Principal, IFIM Law School, “In Karnataka, we have 81 courts (10 specially established to deal with Sexual Assault and Rape matters) which are designated as Fast Track Courts (FTC). As per a survey conducted by CLPR (the Centre for Law and Policy Research), out of 623 cases pending, 107 have been disposed of with 18 convictions and 89 acquittals.”
He also points out that while the main object of setting up FTCs is to speed up justice in matters relating to heinous crimes, till now no effective speedy justice has been delivered by them. Conviction rates are as low as 16.8% in case of sexual assault and 7.8% for child sexual abuse.
The disappearance of FTCs
The FTCs in Karnataka have been converted to regular courts after three years of functioning. “Currently there are no fast track courts in the state; they were functional for three years and it was extended for a year but now all of them have been converted to regular courts, ” said Murali Santhanam, Bangalore-based advocate.
Chandrashekhar C Chanaspur, a practicing lawyer from Bangalore, also confirmed the same. “The FTCs are no longer working as they were established for a limited timeline for specific purposes and they had to address specific reasons. The name fast track has now been removed and all the courts are regular courts only.”
The picture isn’t too dissimilar in other states, where FTCs are concerned. The Law Ministry had moved a note in December 2018 and had sought annual funding of Rs 767.25 crore to set up additional courts over two years. The Nirbhaya Fund empowered committee, set up under the Criminal Law Amendments Act 2018, had approved the budget allocation. The central government’s share would be Rs 474 crore and the rest would have to be borne by the states. An estimated Rs 75 lakh per annum would be spent on each fast track court in a state.
According to a spokesperson from the Ministry of Women and Child Development, so far, only 18 states have come on board for the proposal. These include Maharashtra, Tripura, West Bengal, Meghalaya, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Manipur, Goa, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Mizoram, Chattisgarh, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Tamil Nadu, Assam and Haryana. However, a report released by the Ministry of Law and Justice in June 2019 revealed that not a single fast track court is functioning in many states including Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Himachal Pradesh.
In Chandigarh, an FTC had been set up under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012. But this court has now been given the additional charge of Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act (NDPS), Motor Accident Claims Tribunal (MACT Trials) apart from civil and criminal appeals. Legal experts say that the additional burden is expected to further slowdown the disposal of cases, for the speedy disposal of which the court was originally set up.
Some of the issues that ail FTCs are the fact that there is no specific legislation that governs their working and lays down the norms to be followed. Another key issue is that there are no technical resources for audio and video recordings and most also do not have regular staff or designated investigative officers who can hear these cases
The idea of having these cases on fast track is to ensure that the victim does not turn hostile, which is typically the scenario faced in cases of this nature. “Victim support services and witness protection measures are nonexistent,” says Avinash Dadhich, adding, “Outdated forms of medical evidence (two finger test, probes into prior sexual history of the complainant/ victim), despite the SC’s direction against such, is another issue. The lack of special procedures and special powers to these special courts and lack of adequate training for judges, prosecutors, court officers to deal with such cases are other challenges faced by FTCs.”
Even when a FTC disposes of a case quickly, the verdict can be appealed against in the high courts and the Supreme Court, where they often continue to languish.
With the current situation on women’s safety in the country, the need for speedy justice cannot be overemphasised. FTCs can certainly help but unless they are backed by a framework that considers all aspects of the cause, they will just shut shop like the ones in Karnataka.