In this article, Fast-track Courts in India, we will examine these special courts in India. Though a relatively new legislative invention, they have come to occupy a large space in the public imagination, in no small part due to the nature of the cases they deal with.
Fast-track courts have numerous advantages as compared to the regular courts in India’s slow-moving justice system. However, they also suffer from a few flaws—some part of their nature and some a product of material conditions—that must be addressed for them to deliver complete justice. This article will take you through the concept, the history, and the pros and cons of fast-track courts.
Fast-track courts are, by definition, courts that have been set up to operate at a pace quicker than the rest of the judicial system, usually to resolve crimes of a grave nature or long-standing issues. They are officially known as Fast-Track Special Courts (FTSCs) or simply Fast Track Courts (FTCs) in the Indian context.
The primary responsibility and power for establishing FTSCs lie with the state governments and not with the central government. The central government, however, is in charge of dispersing funds to the various state governments.
Fast-track courts have become the subject of controversy of late, with FTSCs often being used as a weapon in the political arena. Demands for FTSCs surged in India after the gruesome Nirbhaya rape in order to ensure that justice for rape survivors and victims is as smooth and efficient as possible.
History of Fast-track Courts
Fast-track courts were first proposed by the 11th Finance Commission for the purpose of disposing of long-standing litigation that was clogging up the Indian judicial system. These were first set up in 2000 for a period of five years.
The Supreme Court—taking cognizance of the impending end of the FTSCs—observed in Brij Mohan Lal v Union of India that FTSCs should not be disbanded all of a sudden and that they should be continued by the government. Consequently, the government extended the lifespan of these courts for another five years.
Gradually, the FTSCs in various states expanded in scope to include cases of sexual assault—against women and children—as well as on the direction of the respective state governments. At last count, over 24 states and union territories have agreed to join the central government’s latest scheme on establishing fast track courts to deal with sexual assault and POCSO cases.
Advantages of fast-track courts
Fast-track courts have numerous advantages which we will discuss in the following points.
De-clog the judicial system
The fast-track courts, at least in theory, can assist in declogging the Indian judicial system. India’s judiciary is notorious for being slow to dispose of cases, with hundreds of thousands of cases still pending—some dating back centuries.
Fast-track courts, notably, were initially established to quickly dispose of cases such as those. Looking at the success of the courts in fulfilling their objective, the Supreme Court decreed they be continued on.
Deliver justice for undertrials
Undertrials—people who are arrested or detained and awaiting their trial to begin—in India can often spend years before they get their day in court. The fast-track courts expedite that process and deliver trial dates to undertrials more quickly. As the age-old adage goes: “Justice delayed is justice denied.”
Apart from delivering justice for undertrials, FTSCs consequently help in lowering the incarcerated population as, inevitably, many of the undertrials may not be actually guilty of the charges levelled against them. Thus, the FTSCs fulfil both a moral and a practical purpose.
Deliver justice for victims
Most important, the fast-track special courts help in delivering justice and bringing closure to victims and victims’ families. In India, even with cases of sex crimes, cases can often take years, with victims constantly having to deal with the fear of their abuser eventually being acquitted. The fast-track courts help resolve that dilemma.
Even with non-sexual assault cases, such as cases of financial fraud, etc, these courts can finally deliver justice in a case and bring an end to decades of fruitless litigation.
Weaknesses of fast-track courts
Though intended to serve a positive role, fast-track courts also suffer from a few weaknesses as discussed in the subsequent points.
Fast-track courts in India suffer from numerous logistical issues. A survey by a national law school identified gaps in technology that prevented the courts from hearing from victims. It also reported shortages of staff and judges that pose a serious threat to the primary objective of FTCs: quick disposal of cases. Samples from forensic labs are also reportedly delayed.
These logistical issues often delay the FTCs, especially in rural areas, and these courts end up taking a longer time than necessary to dispose of cases.
Problems of prioritization
Another flaw with FTCs is deciding which cases to prioritize—and consequently, assign for fast-tracking. This requires difficult decisions and, oftentimes, the answers are based on political machinations and emotions.
For example, after the Nirbhaya case, public opinion swung heavily towards assigning cases like that to fast-track courts. However, there are also those who argue that whilst rape and sexual assault are indeed barbarous, why should the state choose those crimes instead of, say, murder? Thus, this debate raises contentious points that prove difficult to fully answer.
Whilst the motto “Justice delayed is justice denied” holds true in many ways, courts also cannot afford to rush through a decision that can have disastrous ramifications if incorrect. In cases of rape, especially, if a fast-track court reaches a faulty decision, the consequence could be a man’s life.
With the overwhelming time pressure and media focus on high-profile fast-tracked cases, judges could feel the pressure to ignore certain contentious points in a bid to hasten the process. This, in the legal field, has to be avoided.
As we have examined above, fast-track courts can be beneficial on many levels. They help deliver justice, reduce the imprisoned population, and, possibly, help bring closure to victims and their families.
However, these courts also have several immanent lacunae that must be addressed for them to be functioning as per their legislative intent. Given the high stakes involved in these courts, there certainly can be little room for failure.