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. Image copyright AP
Image caption 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.