Do India's 'fast track' courts work?

Television crew take positions in front of the Saket district court where the accused in a gang rape are being tried, in New Delhi, India, Monday, Jan. 7, 2013. The Delhi gang rape trial will be held in a fast track court

A significant consequence of the horrific rape and death of a 23-year-old student in Delhi has been the decision to set up six "fast track" courts in the capital to deal specifically with cases relating to sexual assaults of women.

Fast track courts are not new in India - have they worked?

Going by numbers, yes. Ever since they were set up by the federal government in 2001 to help tackle the case backlog, more than 1,000 fast track courts have disposed of more than three million cases.

Many lawyers believe this is a considerable achievement given the fact that more than 30 million cases are pending in high and district courts in India.

To add to litigants' woes, there's also a shortage of judges as vacancies are not filled: high courts have 32% fewer judges than they should and district courts have a 21% shortfall. No wonder the ratio of judges is as low as 14 per one million people, compared with over 100 judges per million citizens in the US. Some years ago, a Delhi High Court judge reckoned it would take more than 450 years to clear the backlog given then judge numbers.

All this prodded the government to launch a scheme under which more than 1,700 fast track courts would tackle long-pending cases at a cost of $90m (£56.18m). An average of five such courts were to be established in each district of the country. The judges were to be a mix of retired high court judges and promoted judicial officers.

But funding has been an issue. The central government said it could no longer fund the new courts after March 2011, leaving future funding decisions to individual states. The result - some states have done away with the courts after finding them too expensive to run.

Former Supreme Court chief justice KG Balakrishnan has said the fast track courts were quite successful in reducing the backlog of cases. "If you go by numbers, the record of these courts has been good. But we still don't have any evidence on the quality of the judgements these courts have delivered," says Dr V Nagaraj who teaches law at the Bangalore-based National Law School of India University.

Hasty trials raise fears of possible miscarriages of justice. India's Law Commission sums up the paradox: "Justice delayed is justice denied and at the same time justice hurried is justice buried."

Leading lawyer and rights activist Colin Gonsalves says fast-track courts have not turned out to be a "very satisfactory system of delivering justice".

He told Voice of America recently that people are "generally very upset by the declining standards of these courts and have defined it as 'fast-track injustice.'"

"These courts are given unrealistic targets of cases to finish. They have been told they ought not get involved in too much technicality, and that broadly if they get a feeling that a person is guilty, then declare him guilty and if he is innocent, then declare him innocent."

"But that's not how the criminal justice system works. It requires care and attention. Decisions are not made on the basis of hunches and guess work, which is what the fast-track courts turned out to be. Judges [were] cutting down on evidence, not allowing full cross-examinations, proceeding in the absence of lawyers in many cases."

Dr Nagaraj echoes a similar sentiment, saying there's "some scepticism" about how these courts work. He is mainly concerned with the fact that many of the judges are retirees who are on contracts "and not really accountable to the high court for any miscarriage of justice".

Eventually, experts say, India may have to bite the bullet if it wants to speed up justice - to achieve the government's target of 50 judges for every million people more judges will need to be appointed in regular courts.

Soutik Biswas Article written by Soutik Biswas Soutik Biswas Delhi correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    I think the fast track courts solution is fine as an interim measure but I believe real change in India and other developing countries will only come about if such events generate sufficient impetus for sustained mass action - forcing a culture change is rarely simply a legal matter: - what India needs is a shock to the system!

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Having worked a long while in India I can appreciate the anger currently being expressed there. Women's rights in India is hardly a priority - plenty of articles on the poor response from politicians on this issue: for one. As a lawyer however I've participated in some 'fast courts' and am not convinced it's the way to go - it may alleviate some political pressure that's all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    Hopefully fast track courts are being set-up in the Punjab to arrest and charge those responsible for the wholesale gender slaughter of infant girls? The skewed gender ratio only contributes to sex trafficking and other heinous crimes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    I don't understand why so many r surprised by crimes against women now, after one Delhi rape! For brutality, than rape itself & disrespect to women in Indian society?

    The girls stolen from the streets of India- The UN children's agency UNICEF says it's a problem of "genocide proportions".
    We should be thankful that such rapes not so common or reported!

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    How are they working if the investigators have to resort to violence?

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    After this recent rape in Delhi, many people seem to be obsessed with it, as if it's unexpected or isolated one! No, isn't.

    "Weaker" sections in any society will suffer if it can not make proper laws (>50% of Indian laws r colonial era origin), hardly can impartially enforce laws & deliver justice. One can define "weaker" on many basis- including gender (women), age (kids), caste, religion etc.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    We need to keep in mind that 'closing' a case does not indicate serving justice.

    Indian police & other govt agencies (CBI included) is notoriously famous for arm-twisting, not investigating cases properly, preparing deliberately false or diluted cases, too much political & personal interference. Judiciary too lacks accountability.

    Anyone can visit a court & see how justice is (not) served!

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    @ Bill Walker (7). Exactly.

    Check almost any expensive programs like DRDO, "rights to" (education, food etc) laws, caste based reservation, setting up so many expensive institutes etc. Mostly such programs r for vote bank, "feel good" politics, other than satisfying whims of few influential people in concerned department.

    India grossly got its priorities & accountability WRONG.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    It seems so ridiculous that even a section of judiciary is demanding special system for specific crime.

    Crime is crime & must be addressed- fast. We can't say that rape is more serious than many other crimes, e.g murder or embezzlement. Should we have special courts for caste, religious, political & other crimes?
    If we can't deliver justice to other crimes, we can't do that for rape as well.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    We need to keep in mind the basic Qs, i.e delivering justice. majority people do not think that justice is served in either fast or 'slow' track courts in India.

    No informed, sensible people approach courts to get justice. They approach politicians or "others". On top of that, judiciary is grossly over burdened by total break down of civil administration & political governance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    The fast courts will work to reduce the number of cases but will do very little to solve the systemic issue related to women's safety and rights. Dishing out justice willy-nilly is hardly a permanent solution to what are very pressing societal issues.


  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    On societal-structural level, India needs strong campaign against sexual exploitation. Conditions under which females live must be improved by introducing development measures for poverty reduction & social programs focusing specifically on females. Ending rape must prevade total society. Fast-track justice canot work, will not work, without the motivation of total Indian society.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Law needs to reduce utilization of females as commodities. e.g. Have businesses, which requires license to operate, provide mandatory training re sensitization on zero tolerance of sexual violence in/out of the work place. License renewal could be made dependent on business submitting certificates to show all employees have undergone Zero Tolerance of Sexual Violence Training.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Fast-track courts seem to me attacking problems from wrong end - after-the fact.
    Needed: efforts to transform society so hat females can live lives free of all forms of male violence. In combination with public education, awareness-raising campaigns, & victim support, law/legislation needs to establish a zero tolerance policy for sexual exploitation & violence against women.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    10 what nonsense - a) they are not kangaroo courts rather fast track courts (did you not read the title or the article ?!) and b) this is not about women's rights but rather about trying the 6 people who committed the crime.
    Stick to the salient points instead of going off on a tangent !!

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    The biggest mistake in the Indian Judicial system is that it has been adapted mostly from the British. Procedures applied in tiny countries like UK cannot be applied to big nation like India. Even though the processes are slow, Indian system is one of the fairest (look at the case of Kasab). On the other hand, just ponder how the UK treated Assange. India does not need any advice from UK.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Fast track courts risk first class justice, moving too quickly through the processes (which are there for good reason - because of past mistakes....).......

    ....take the fast tracks in the UK after the summer riots 2 years ago..... many released on appeal/sentances downgraded because so many bad decisions were made by tired judges & lawyers.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Fast Track courts exist in India. My mother had a case going on in a Fast Track court in Delhi since 2006.

    The case is still going on whilst my mother died few years ago.

    Do Fast Track courts work? Of Course Not !

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Not sure if kangaroo courts are the answer to India's more systemic challenges regarding women's rights... the attitude of society needs to change in order to make a real impact.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Justice has to be served. The young lady(medical student) lost her life owing to the brutish impulses of a few men who had no respect for her. The trial has to be fair. The fact that it is being held behind closed doors ensures proper representations is being made. The judges on these cases are learned and have considerable experience in deciding on the outcome. Keeping the public out was wise.


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