Justice delayed: Are fast-track courts fast enough?

In 2017, Fast-track courts in only six states managed to dispose 50% of their cases within a year.

FTCs in Bihar completed 6,704 cases in 2017. Of these, 2,507 cases took more than ten years, and 1,655 cases took between five and ten years. There is nothing “fast” about this

The Eleventh Finance Commission’s report was submitted in 2000, and recommendations were for 2000 to 2005. The report said, “We have observed that there is a pendency of about two crore cases in the district and subordinate courts of the States… We are providing a grant of Rs. 502.90 crore for creation of additional courts specifically for the purpose of disposing of the long-pending cases… This will enable the States to create 1,734 new additional courts.” This was based on an estimated cost of Rs. 29 lakh for each additional court. Though the Eleventh Finance Commission didn’t use the expression, these 1,734 courts were fast track courts (FTCs). In consultation with High Courts, state governments were supposed to establish FTCs. FTCs were meant to be till March 31, 2005. By that date, state governments notified 1,711 FTCs, and 1,562 were functional. Performance varied widely across states. Per FTC, the all-India average of cases disposed per month was 15. Originally, this was meant to be a per judge norm, not a per FTC norm.

In a case (Brij Mohan Lal versus Union of India), the Supreme Court instructed that one shouldn’t disband FTCs overnight. Hence, the Union government approved Rs. 509 crore for the 1,562 functional FTCs to continue till March 31, 2010, a deadline later extended till March 31, 2011. In 2012, in the Brij Mohan Lal case, the Supreme Court said, “The Union of India has stated that it would not, in any case, finance expenditure of the FTC Scheme beyond 30th March, 2011, but some of the States have resolved to continue the FTC Scheme up to 2012, 2013 and even 2016. A few States are even considering the continuation of the FTC Scheme as a permanent feature in their respective States. This, to a large extent, has created an anomaly in the administration of Justice in the States and the entire country. Some of the States would continue with the FTC Scheme while others have been forced to discontinue or close it because of non-availability of funds… Being a policy decision which has already taken effect, we decline to strike down the policy decision of the Union of India vide letter dated 14th September, 2010 not to finance the FTC Scheme beyond 31st March, 2011… The States which are in the process of taking a policy decision on whether or not to continue the FTC Scheme as a permanent feature of administration of justice in the respective States are free to take such a decision.”

On balance, were FTCs a good idea? Tough to say, performance varied between states. Up to a maximum of Rs. 80 crore per year, till March 31, 2015, there was a matching grant to states for FTCs. Then, along came the Fourteenth Finance Commission, for 2015-2020, and there was a Rs. 4,144 crore proposal for grants-in-aid from the Department of Justice for FTCs, in addition to grants for additional courts and family courts. On December 31, 2018, there were 699 FTCs (some earlier ones having been closed down). These were for cases against women, children, senior citizens, differently abled, those with terminal ailments, and civil property disputes more than five years old. Crime data for 2017 have just been published, and “Crime in India” has information on IPC crimes tried by FTCs. Special and local law (SLL) crimes are unlikely to be transferred to FTCs. But, yes, these numbers don’t include civil cases handled by fast track courts. When will you think a court is fast track? Probably when a court disposes the case transferred to it within a year.

So, let’s ask the following question. Out of the cases disposed in 2017, which States/UTs had FTCs that disposed of at least half their cases within one year? You will get J&K, Jharkhand, Karnataka, MP, Rajasthan, and Tamil Nadu. And, there will be Chhattisgarh, and Punjab marginally missing the cut. If the cut-off is changed from one year to three years, some other States (Gujarat, Haryana, Telangana, West Bengal, Delhi) don’t have dismal records. However, as part of the dismal scenario, there are FTCs in Bihar. FTCs in Bihar completed 6,704 cases in 2017. Of these, 2,507 cases took more than ten years, and 1,655 cases took between five and ten years. There is nothing “fast” about this. Between 2016 and 2017, some definitions and headings in “Crime in India” have changed. Therefore, a comparable table doesn’t exist in last year’s version. But, trends aren’t likely to be different.

There is now (2019) a scheme for fast track special courts (FTSCs) for rape and POCSO (Protection of Children against Sexual Offences) cases. “The 1,023 FTSCs will dispose of 166,882 cases of Rape and POCSO Act, that are pending trial in various courts… There are 389 districts in the country where the number of pending cases under POCSO Act exceeds 100. Therefore, as per the order of Hon’ble Apex Court, in each of these districts one exclusive POCSO court will be set up which will try no other cases. Depending upon the pendency of POCSO Cases the State/UT Governments in consultation with the High Court could however decide if more number of exclusive POCSO Courts need to be established within overall number of FTSCs provided under this scheme.” For FTSCs, the Union government will meet part of the expense, with a matching grant by the State/UT, and this scheme is till 2020-21. However, the incentive structure for the judges presiding over FTCs has a lesson also for FTSCs.

(The author is Chairman, Economic Advisory Council to the PM. Views are personal)

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