The fundamental working and growth of a country can be best understood by looking at the judicial setup of that country. The manner and time were taken to resolve issues and disputes depict the transparent and true nature of the functioning of the authorities in a Country. It is well-known that important issues demand an utmost and immediate resolution and as the legal maxim goes:
“Justice delayed is justice denied”
Fast track courts as the term suggests, were encapsulated in the Indian judicial set up to ensure the speedy settlement of cases that demand urgent action. To lessen the burden of the overburdened District Courts, High Courts, and even the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India, the fast-track courts were introduced in the year 2000 in India. These courts were primarily set up to impart exclusive jurisdiction over a particular category of law for example- matters relating to sexual assault or cases involving juveniles. Usually, it takes many years to sum-up normal court cases due to various appeals and hearings that take place in various courts at different levels. This duration not only delays justice but also drains out a person from their financial well-being.
Initially, the setting up of fast track courts all over the country was done for an experimental period of 5 years on the recommendation of the 11th Finance Commission but gradually, when the fast track courts were proved to be effective and efficient in discharging their duties, the period was extended further again and again and it was only in the year 2012 when India was hit in its capital city by the Nirbhaya rape case and the Government realized the need for immediate action against the offenders in matters of sexual assault. At that time 6 fast-track courts were set up in Delhi dealing solely with the matters of sexual assault.
The various advantages of fast-track courts are:
· It helps a great deal in the resolution of pending cases in the District and High Courts across India and lessens their burden.
· It aims at reducing the number of under-trials in jails.
· It provides for specialization and professionalization as cases are dealt with belonging to a particular category of law.
· It aims at improving the effectiveness and efficiency of the Indian Judiciary.
· It aims at guaranteeing consistency and speedy clearance of cases.
But, with the passage of time and an immense increase in the number of heinous crimes, it can be observed that the current situation of the working of the fast-track courts in India is meager and the objective sought to be achieved by them has been compromised.
Article 21 of the Constitution of India which talks about the fundamental right to life and liberty also includes the fundamental right to speedy trial i.e., non-delay in the delivery of justice. In the case of Menaka Gandhi v. Union of India[i], The Hon’ble Supreme Court stated that speedy trial means a reasonably expeditious trial and it is an essential and integral part of the fundamental right to life and liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution of India. The legislature states that the right to a speedy trial is a necessary obligation upon the Courts in India and has to be fulfilled as a constitutional mandate to secure the social, economic & political justice to all the citizens as enshrined in the Preamble of the Constitution. In the case, Hussainara Khatoon v. the State of Bihar[ii], The Hon’ble Supreme Court held that the right to a speedy trial is an essence of criminal justice and the delay caused in the delivery of justice would surely constitute a denial of justice.
The Directive Principles of State Policy as enshrined in the Constitution of India also mentions that the state shall strive to maintain social order in governing all institutions of national life. This can be done by securing the promotion of justice through the legal system i.e., by ensuring non-discrimination in the face of any socio-economic or other disabilities. In the case of Babu v. Raghunathji[iii], The Hon'ble Supreme Court held that the ambit of social justice will also include ‘legal justice’ within it which means that it is the duty of the system governing administration of justice to provide an instrument that is cheap, expeditious and effective for the realization of justice by every section of citizens, notwithstanding their socio-economic position or financial resources.
Though the fast-track courts were set up to conduct trials and deliver justice at a speedy rate than the usual time taken by the courts in India we can see that during the years the process has been slowed down and the fast-track courts have flawed in delivering justice in due time. The courts that were required to deliver justice within a maximum period of 2-3 years have, unfortunately, not been able to deliver justice even within a decade in states like Bihar, Telangana, etc. The main objective behind setting up these courts was to clear the huge number backlog of cases in the District and High Courts, but after looking at the current scenario it is evident that despite clearing the cases, the fast-track courts have started following the pathway of the district and the High Courts. According to the statistics of 2019 by the Union Law Ministry, approximately 6 lakh cases were pending in the fast-track courts all over India with Uttar Pradesh topping the list with approximately 4.5 lakhs of backlogs.
The main reasons/problems behind the slowing down of fast-track courts in India are:
1. Lesser number of judges compared to the population of a city/area. According to the statistics, there are only 19 judges for 1 million people in India which are very few in comparison to the other developed nations. This implies that the judges in the fast-track courts are also overburdened with cases and have a paucity of time and capacity.
2. The special category of cases upon which the fast-track courts have exclusive jurisdiction are themselves very high in number and the burden upon the fast-track courts is equivalent to the regular courts in the country thereby, making the dispute resolution time-consuming.
3. The absence of process engineering and fixed timelines for the disposal of cases and supporting infrastructure to ensure this in the fast-track courts makes it impossible to dispose-off cases within 1-2 years.
4. The absence of clear mandates describing what all cases will fall within the purview of fast-track courts makes dispute resolution a tedious process. For example, whether eve-teasing cases will fall within the jurisdiction of fast-track courts set up under the ‘Nirbhaya fund’ and be tried therein or not?
5. Just like the regular court cases herein the fast-track courts also delay the trial due to the absence of witnesses for examination and cross-examination.
6. The adjournments sought by lawyers due to various reasons also cause a delay in the adjudication of the dispute.
7. Though the fast tracks courts are here for the speedy resolution of matters the appeals from these decisions that are made in the High Courts or the Supreme Court will take the usual time to get resolved.
Delayed delivery of justice demands adequate measures such as:
1. Appointment of an adequate number of judges in the courts all over India so that the judge-citizen ratio as mentioned above gets balanced.
2. The setting up of clear mandates should be done to gain transparency about the cases that will fall within the ambit of fast-track courts.
3. Limits should be set upon the number of times adjournments can be sought by the lawyers.
4. Time boundations shall be determined for all categories of cases falling under the ambit of fast-track courts so that no court takes excess time for the dispute resolution.
5. A legal bar shall be created upon conduction of formal court hearings and cases that demand urgent action shall be directly referred to the fast-track courts.
Initially, the concept of fast-track rulings took place in India and resulted in the speedy trial of cases along with fewer backlogs in the District and the High Courts but, eventually with the growing number of cases and the stagnant growth of the judicial infrastructure and set up the functioning of the fast-track courts has slowed down and lost its true identity. To regain the initial image of fast-track courts, a constant check upon the timely delivery of justice along with the quality of judgments delivered has to be done. It is necessary to ensure that there is no ‘miscarriage of justice’ at the hands of the fast-track courts and the faith of the citizens in the Indian judiciary is maintained. Along with it, examples set by various countries like Spain, Liberia, and the United Kingdom shall be look up to while ensuring a stipulated time frame for all categories of cases falling within the ambit o