Fast Track Courts were constituted in India to ensure speedy justice. However, Fast Track Courts are reduced to mere paper tigers due to a lack of funds, staff and institutional framework. This article is a narrative of the history of Fast Track Courts, their functioning and failings.
- Features of Fast Track Courts and How They Are Different From Normal Courts
- History of Fast Track Courts in India
- The Rationale Behind Fast Track Courts
- Fast Track Courts in Specific States
- Effectiveness of Fast Track Courts in Delivering Speedy Justice
- Suggestions for Reforming Fast Track Courts
“Justice delayed is justice denied.” With this above motto in mind, India’s central and state governments have been very active in constituting Fast Track Courts (FTC). Fast Track Courts deal with specific offences like sexual offences, cheque dishonour etc., in a short period of time. They expeditiously dispose of cases and help in clearing the immense backlog in the Indian judiciary.
As on December 2022, there are 764 Fast Track Courts dealing with sexual offences, including 411 exclusive POCSO Courts in 28 states & UTs. These courts have disposed of more than 1,44,000 pending cases. During 2022-23 alone, the Centre released a total of Rs. 198.77 crores for funding the Fast Track Courts.
However, Fast Track Courts in India are plagued with several issues like lack of legislative backing and proper framework that must be addressed to ensure speedy justice.
Features of Fast Track Courts and How They Are Different From Normal Courts
The characteristic features of a Fast Track Court can best be understood by comparing it with a normal court:
- A normal court does not operate with any target or deadline. However, Fast Track Courts generally have a target number of cases that it has to dispose of in a particular period.
- A Fast Track Court is supposed to have all the witnesses in a case examined in a single trial. This is not the case with a normal court.
- The jurisdiction of Fast Track Courts is restricted. For example, there are Fast Track courts specifically for POCSO offences. However, normal courts have wide jurisdiction over civil wrongs and criminal offences.
- Issuing of summons and warrants is faster in Fast Track Courts than in normal courts.
- Fast Track Courts do not postpone hearings or allow adjournments, but these are very common in normal courts.
History of Fast Track Courts in India
The most common misconception is that Fast Track Courts were introduced to deal with offences involving women and children. Though it is true that most of the FTCs today deal with such offences, they were initially introduced to deal with commercial offences and other minor criminal offences pending in Sessions Court. The evolution of FTCs in India can be traced through different time periods:
The 11th Finance Commission recommended setting up Fast Track Courts in 2005. Following this, 1734 FTCs were constituted across the nation.
The 188th Law Commission report encouraged the government to set up Fast Track Courts dealing with commercial offences in every High Court.
The 213th Law Commission report of 2011 recommended the government to set up FTCs for cheque bounce cases.
However, after 2011, the fervour (passion/enthusiasm) of the central government in setting up Fast Tract Courts died down. Their funding was withdrawn, and several FTCs were shut down. The existing Fast Tract Courts had to make do with state funding, which was highly inadequate.
In December 2012, the horrific Nirbhaya rape case caused a stir in the country. People demanded that justice had to be swift for the rapists. This drew attention to the problems in India’s criminal justice system, including the heavy backlog of cases in Session Courts. Once again FTCs were the need of the hour.
The new cluster of Fast Tract Courts specialized in sexual offences relating to women and children. The Nirbhaya fund was set up to fund 1023 FTCs. Currently, Fast Tract Courts have become an essential part of the Indian judicial setup.
The Rationale Behind Fast Track Courts
There are several pros to Fast Track Courts. Some of the significant reasons for constituting such courts are given below.
1. Speedy Disposal of Cases
Fast Track Courts do not allow adjournment of cases. Even if they do allow for adjournments, they have a target period within which they have to dispose of a case or a target number of cases they have to dispose of within a specific period. This results in swift justice.
2. De-Clogging the Courts
As on March 19, 2023, 59,87,477 cases are pending in High Courts across India, as per the data collected by National Judicial Data Grid (NJDG). The backlog in the Sessions Courts and lower courts is a bigger problem. In summary, the Indian judiciary is immensely overburdened. The Fast Track Courts play an important role by drawing certain cases before themselves and thereby decongesting the courts.
3. A Remedy to the Undertrials
Undertrial prisoners are those who await trials and are yet to be convicted or acquitted. But the sad truth is that many of them remain in prison for a longer time as undertrials than if they had been convicted for the offence itself.
In the Rudul Shah case, the Supreme Court awarded exemplary damages to a man who remained in prison for 14 years longer than required. Such situations can be avoided if FTCs function with efficiency.
4. Commitment to Constitutional Rights and Ideals
The Supreme Court has reiterated time and again that the right to a speedy trial is a part of the right to life and liberty enshrined in Article 21 of the Constitution.
Article 39A says that the state has to ensure that the country’s legal system promotes justice. These ideals and rights are brought into action through FTCs.
Fast Track Courts in Specific States
Certain states have taken a special interest in the setting up and running of Fast Track Courts. These include:
In December 2013, the Karnataka Government passed an executive order for the creation of Fast Track Courts to deal with offences against women. In 2012, special POCSO Fast Track Courts were constituted. These courts are headed by one presiding officer, who is usually a district judge and 37 support staff.
These courts have been very efficient in disposing of cases. However, the conviction rate is very low. There are certain procedural and substantiative difficulties as well. This includes:
- Lack of special training for the judges. For instance, even a civil judge can be appointed as a presiding officer of the FTC dealing with POCSO cases. In the absence of training, the judge might not be efficient in dealing with POCSO cases.
- Lack of victim support services.
- Lack of regular monitoring and performance evaluation.
- Lack of legislative backing as the courts were not constituted statutorily but through a government order.
- Higher chance of witnesses turning hostile as the trial is conducted in one single session.
2. Andra Pradesh
After the gang rape and murder of Dr Disha, the Andra Pradesh government started taking serious steps to ensure swift justice for rape victims and their families. As a result, the Disha Act of 2019 was passed.
This Act provided for Fast Track Courts that dealt with sexual harassment cases exclusively. The Act specifies a period of 21 working days to dispose of a case. This includes 7 days for investigation and 14 days for trial.
However, this Act has been severely criticized. Many feel that the government, in its zeal to ensure a speedy trial, has completely ignored fair trial. In Zahira Habibullah Sheikh and Anr vs the State of Gujarat, the Supreme Court has held that the right to a fair trial is an intrinsic part of the right to life under Article 21. A trial conducted in 14 days is hardly a fair trial and may result in a gross miscarriage of justice.
3. Uttar Pradesh
Initially, the state of Uttar Pradesh was actively setting up Fast Track Courts. According to a government order in 2014, the government had ordered the setting up of 75 new Fast Track Courts across the state.
However, as per current statistics, Uttar Pradesh tops the list of states that have pending cases in the Fast Track Courts. The state accounts for more than 70 per cent of the 13.81 lakh pending trials in Fast Track Courts in cases of heinous crimes against women, children and senior citizens. This could be due to a lack of financial support and monitoring by the government.
Effectiveness of Fast Track Courts in Delivering Speedy Justice
It can safely be said that Fast Track Courts are ideal for speedy disposal and de-clogging of the backlog of cases. However, whether justice is delivered is entirely another issue.
The infamous Best Bakery case is an example of how a trial can be speedy, but still, justice may not be delivered. In this case, before a Fast Track Court, 21 accused who burnt people alive during the Gujarat riots were put to trial. The court delivered judgement within 44 days resulting in the acquittal of all the accused. This case was later taken up by the High Court, where the decision was reversed, and subsequently, an appeal was lodged before the Supreme Court. The apex court severely condemned the manner in which the proceedings were conducted by the Fast Track Court and stated that there had been a ‘gross miscarriage of justice’.
Hence, the effectiveness of Fast Track Courts varies across the country and can still be improved in many ways.
Suggestions for Reforming Fast Track Courts
Fast Track Courts face several impediments to their functioning. Some of them include:
1. The Lack of Legislative Backing
If Fast Track Courts were constituted by a statute rather than by administrative actions, that would solve most of its problems. This is because the statute would have provisions for funds to the FTCs, a framework for its functioning, a complete regulation of procedural and substantiative laws applied by the FTCs and a scheme for the appointment of presiding officers and support staff to the courts.
This would completely curb any arbitrary appointment or judgements by the Fast Track Courts and will bring them in line with the mainstream judiciary.
2. Financial and Infrastructure Constraints
Initially, the Centre took up the financing of FTCs, but later the funding was left to the discretion of the state governments. The state governments started funding the FTCs on and off. This meant there was never a steady flow of funds to the Fast Track Courts. This has resulted in understaffing or a lack of support staff, investigators and victim support services.
This has also resulted in the shutting down of several FTCs. In Brij Mohan vs UOI, the Supreme Court itself allowed the government to shut down 100 Fast Track Courts due to lack of funds.
3. Lack of Training
As already mentioned, the presiding officers of Fast Track Courts are drawn from all fields of the judiciary. This means that even a civil judge may preside over a POCSO case. He can not do so without proper training. This has led to many absurd judgements being passed by the Fast Track Courts.
A Fast Track Court in Belgaum refused to consider medical evidence of forcible sexual intercourse by stating that the victim had had consensual sexual intercourse with her husband earlier that day.
In yet another shocking judgement, a Fast Track Court in Bangalore carried out the investigation of a crime for two years after the actual instance. All this can be put down to untrained presiding officers and staff.
The Fast Track Courts in India are a great way of supplementing our existing hierarchical setup of the justice delivery system and are quite successful in clearing the backlog of cases. However, the courts have to be refined and reformed to best cater to the interest of justice.