Too Slow for Comfort

In a letter to chief justices of High Courts, Law Minister Kiren Rijiju raised concerns about the pendency of cases in fast track courts (FTCs) and urged them to set up more such courts for speedy justice. The letter emphasises creating a strong justice delivery system through FTCs. To ensure speedy disposal of cases and prevent backlog, it said that necessary instructions and support may be given to the courts concerned and a strict monitoring mechanism set up for the time-bound disposal of cases.

The 14th Finance Commission had recommended setting-up of 1,400 FTCs by state governments to fast-track cases of heinous crimes. However, till July 31, 2022, only 896 FTCs were established in 24 states/Union Territories, where 13,18,427 cases were pending. During the analysis, it was also noticed that while 88,000 monthly cases were registered, case disposal was approximately 35,000, leading to an ever-increasing pendency of cases.

As far as Fast Track Special Courts (FTSCs) are concerned, they were started under a centrally-sponsored scheme in October 2019, pursuant to Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2018, for quick disposal of rape and POCSO cases. While the scheme envisaged 1,023 FTCs, including 389 exclusive POCSO courts (the figure was based on the then pendency data), only 731 FTCs with 412 exclusive POCSO courts were operational in 28 states and UTs as on July 31, 2022. These courts have cumulatively disposed 1,08,702 cases.

While expressing concern over the pendency of cases, the minister stated that as on July 2022, the total pendency of rape and POCSO Act cases was more than 3,28,000, which is an alarming situation.

According to the data, in West Bengal, 35,653 cases were pending in FTSCs, followed by Bihar (22,592), Tamil Nadu (20,037), Odisha (19,214), Rajasthan (18,077), Kerala (14,392), Gujarat (12,347) and Telangana (12,248). In the letter, with respect to FTSCs, the minister raised concern over the increasing number of cases by mentioning that in a month, almost 10,000 cases were registered, while the disposal is 6,000 (approx.).

The minister stated that the budget allocated for the FTSC scheme was being underutilised. He said that the government was allocating sufficient funds in every year’s budget for the scheme and had also been following with state governments and High Courts for availing the allocated funds and their timely utilisation. However, in many states, the pre-requisite compliances under the Public Fund Management System were not fully complete or partially complete. He said that as the safety and security of women, children, as well as marginalised categories are of paramount concern, the need for robust functioning of FTCs and FTSCs was highly imperative.

The minister requested the chief justices to intervene in the following issues:

“1) In view of the huge pendency of cases, the balance number of FTCs in the respective jurisdiction may be set up with due consultation of the State Government as envisaged in the 14th FC through increased share of fund devolution to States and as urged by the Union Government.

“2) As per the centrally sponsored scheme of FTCs, the remaining number of Courts in the respective jurisdiction may be set up and operationalised on priority basis.

“3) To ensure the speedy disposal of cases and prevent creation of backlog, necessary instructions and support maybe given to the Courts concerned and a strict monitoring mechanism may be set up for the timebound disposal of cases by FTCs and FTSCs.

“4) Necessary compliances as mandated under PFMS may kindly be ensured for timely availing of the allocated GoI funds for FTSCs.”

In 2019, the Supreme Court in a suo motu petition had issued directions, stating that districts with more than 100 cases pending under the POCSO Act need to set up special courts that can deal specifically with these cases.

Increasing the number of courts as a recourse to deal with the mounting backlog has been a common practice. However, while large sums of money and attention are being devoted to creating additional posts, little is being done to identify and address the prevalent systemic issues. Without fully optimising the current mechanisms and resolving the problems, sanctioning more judges may not provide the intended results.

Fast-track courts have been around for a long time, with the first ones being established in 2000. Since then, much has been spoken and written about them. With all these years of experience and money spent, it is discomforting to see not only the decline of FTCs, but also systemic issues prevalent in states that have the courts. 

In a survey of FTCs conducted by National Law University Delhi, it was observed that there was a huge variation in the kinds of cases handled by these courts across states. While certain states primarily allocated rape and sexual offence cases to them, other states allocated various other matters. Further, several FTCs lacked technological resources to conduct audio and video recordings of the victims and many of them did not have regular staff.

Hence, there are several other factors that have an impact on disposal of cases. Inadequate staff and IT infrastructure, delay in getting reports from understaffed forensic science laboratories, frivolous adjournments and over-listing of cases in the cause list are some of the variables. Identifying systemic issues and addressing the concerns is as important for timely disposal of cases as increasing the number of judges.

The final responsibility of making sure that the entire exercise results in a positive change vests with the states. For the FTCs to become successful, states will need to take stock of the issues at the ground level. Equal attention must be paid to both metropolitan and far-flung non-metropolitan areas. Critical issues such as inadequate court staff, improper physical and IT infrastructure and understaffed forensic labs, which affect the day-to-day functioning of the FTCs, must be comprehensively addressed. 

The minister assured full support of the Department of Justice for the fulfillment of common goals for speedy justice delivery to all citizens. 

—By Abhilash Kumar Singh and India Legal Bureau