“This is an exceptional case where this court has taken serious note of the way the Sessions Judge disposed of the case within a period of nine days.”
This is the opening sentence of the Supreme Court’s September 25 judgement in Patel Maheshbhai Ranchodbhai v. State of Gujarat. While upholding the petitioner’s conviction in a case of dowry death, the court expressed grave reservations about the quality of justice rendered when trial courts proceed at a breakneck speed, paying scant attention to mandatory rules of procedure or evidence.
The sad truth is that too often the quest for speedy justice means courts ride roughshod over the rights of both victims and accused. In the case above, for instance, the trial court’s acquittal was based on the erroneous appreciation of shoddy evidence presented by the prosecution. The harm was mitigated by the High Court’s reappraisal of all the evidence presented, which is in any case exceptional, as appellate courts are meant to decide questions of law, not determine facts.
The public clamour for fast-track courts is born from frustration with the staggering arrears of cases in the Indian judicial system, and the general impression of delay and torpor that any visit to the courts leaves. The large number of vacancies in the High Courts and subordinate courts – a problem that seems to be getting worse – only reinforces the impression.
But does this mean we should rely on fast-track courts?
For instance, is it a good idea to fix time frames for the disposal of cases? Indian law (unlike the United States, which has the Speedy Trials Act, 1974) is silent about mandatory time limits, though some provisions of the codes of civil and criminal procedure do lay down time frames for completing certain stages of a case. As seven judges of the Supreme Court agreed in P. Ramachandra Rao v. State of Karnataka in 2002, mandatory time limits would be neither feasible nor judicially permissible, because of the inherent uniqueness of every case.
While a stipulated time period could appear to be an oppressive delay to one party in a legal matter, his opponent could consider that same time essential to marshalling evidence and other resources to defend himself – which is his inalienable right. Of course unscrupulous litigants do often adopt dilatory tactics, but those aberrations need to be penalised, not used as the foundations of rule-making.
In its 245th report published in July, the Law Commission of India attempted to find a way out of this impasse by adopting what is termed a Normative Assessment approach. It suggests fixing time standards (not mandatory, unlike time frames) for the disposal of cases.
Judicial efficiency is determined not on the basis of the decision-making speed of judges, but by considering the specific expertise required to deal with various subjects.
Instead of recommending that all judicial vacancies be filled up at the earliest, the commission estimates how many additional judges with similar efficiency levels would be required to ensure all the cases filed in a year are disposed of.
To ensure that the rights of the weak and vulnerable are not steamrolled under the guise of efficiency, the commission provides for the extra judicial time and effort required to cater to the basic legal needs of socially marginalised and indigent litigants.
The the need for speed should never take precedence over elementary requirements of fairness and justice. The Law Commission’s warning against giving precedence to quantitative output over qualitative standards should not go unheeded.