FAST TRACK COURTS

Dinkar Shukla

    A novel experiment aimed at clearing the massive backlog in court cases has just begun in the country with the setting up of nearly 450 ‘fast track’ courts in various states. At least one thousand more fast track courts will become functional by the end of June this year. They await the completion of construction of court rooms, selection of judges and provision of necessary infrastructure. A total of 1,734 such courts are being set up at the instance of the Government of India under a wholly centrally-funded scheme. The remaining around 300 such courts are expected to come into existence in the course of the current year.

    Fast track courts are meant to expeditiously clear the colossal scale of pendency in the district and subordinate courts under a time-bound programme. A laudable objective of the five-year experimental scheme is to take up on top priority basis sessions and other cases involving undertrials. These cases will be taken up in the first year itself. An estimated 1.80 lakh undertrials are languishing in various jails in the country. A majority of them are behind bars on account of petty or minor offences not warranting prolonged imprisonment. Yet many of them are under lock up in the absence of trial.

    The fast track courts are expected to substantially reduce the number of undertrials in jails at the end of the first year. A vast majority of them will be set free, thereby reducing expenditure as well as burden on jails. The State Governments are spending an aggregate of over Rs. 361 crore per annum on the imprisoned undertrials at the rate of Rs. 55 per head per day. Besides saving a bulk of this expenditure, the expeditious disposal of cases relating to undertrials will address a serious human rights problem.

    What made the scheme feasible was the outright grant of Rs. 502.90 crore by the Eleventh Finance Commission. The grant has been provided for the creation of 1,734 additional courts specifically for the disposal of pending cases. In doing so the Finance body accepted the recommendation of the Department of Justice, Ministry of Law, and the pleas of State governments. Sharing the concern of the Governments over the pendancy of over two crore cases, the Eleventh Finance Commission had in its report concurred with the view that remedial measures are urgently called for. Apart from the ‘special problem’ grant of Rs. 502.90 crore, the Commission also recommended that nearly ten per cent vacancies of judicial officers in the existing set up be filled forthwith to check further accumulation of cases.

    Under the government’s action plan, the fast track courts will take up as their next priority sessions cases pending for two years or more, particularly in which the accused persons have been on bail. According to an official figure, the total number of cases pending in the nearly 13,000 district and subordinate courts in the country is a whopping 2.40 crore (latest estimate). Of these, over 50 lakh criminal and over 25 lakh civil cases are pending for a period ranging from one to three years. These are in addition to over 10 lakh pending sessions cases. The others are more than three years’ old. The 21 High Courts account for over 34 lakh pending cases. Over ten per cent of these are more than ten years’ old.

Break Up

    The scheme envisages the setting up of an average of five fast track courts in each district of the country. State-wise distribution has, however, been done keeping in view the pendency of cases and the average rate of disposal of cases in courts. Uttar Pradesh will have the largest number of 242 additional courts followed by Maharashtra’s 187, Bihar’s 183, Gujarat’s 166 and West Bengal’s 152. Karnataka’s tally is 93, Jharkhand’s 89, Andhra Pradesh’s 86, Madhya Pradesh’s 85, Rajasthan’s 83, Orissa’s 72, Tamil Nadu’s 49, Uttaranchal’s 45, Kerala’s 37, Haryana’s 36, Chhatisgarh’s 31 and Punjab’s 29.

    Assam will have 20 fast track courts, Jammu and Kashmir 12, Himachal Pradesh 9, Goa and Arunachal Pradesh 5 each and Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura 3 each. Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab are not content with the allotted number of fast track courts. They have notified to the Centre that they will respectively establish 43 and 34 additional courts.

Judges

    The scheme envisages the appointment of ad hoc judges from among retired sessions/additional sessions judges, judges promoted on ad hoc basis and posted in these courts or from among members of the Bar. Selection of judges will be done by the High Courts. The Centre has directed the State Governments that consequential vacancies resulting from ad hoc promotion of judges be filled through a special drive. This is called for in order that further pendency is not created in existing courts of magistrates and civil judges.

    As per the Centre’s action plan, the fast track courts will be required to dispose of 14 sessions trial cases and/or 20 to 25 criminal/civil cases every month. The State Governments and High Courts have been requested to make effective arrangement for representation on behalf of the prosecution and to ensure quick process service.

    Keeping in view the overall grant of the Finance Commission, a sum of Rs. 29 lakh is earmarked for each additional court. The major portion of the amount is to be spent on salaries of judicial officers and other staff ( a peshkar or superintendent and a peon). This works out to Rs. 4.80 lakh per year or a total of Rs. 24 lakh in five years. The remaining outlay is meant for the construction of court room (Rs. 3.4 lakh) and computer and library facilities (Rs. 1.60 lakh). The annual expenditure on the fast track courts will work out to Rs. 100 crore. The calculation is based on the assumption that while 1,450 fast track courts will become functional by June end most of the remaining will come up in the course of the current year. The States, which are lagging behind their targets, are being persuaded by the Centre to speed up the work.

Attributes

    A unique feature of the scheme is that it is going to prove to be cost effective. This is so because the new courts have been charged with the exclusive work of disposing of undertrial cases in the first year of their existence. A large majority of undertrials being those who had been booked for petty/minor offences, they are bound to be discharged forthwith as most of them have been behind bars for periods which are longer than the punishment warranted by the offence. In plain terms, this will mean a huge saving in jail expenditure. As stated earlier, the State Governments are spending an aggregate of Rs. 361 crore annually on the 1.80 lakh undertrials.

    Indian jails are, in fact, brimming with prisoners. Against the sanctioned capacity of 2.56 lakh, jails in the country are crowded by more than five lakh inmates. This is resulting in all sorts of complications. Keeping this factor in view the States had together sought from the Eleventh Finance Commission an aggregate of Rs. 3,700 crore upgradation grant to improve facilities and infrastructure relating to jails. The Finance body, however, provided 116 crore for a five-year period. This may be small consolation. But the fact remains that a Finance Commission has for the first time set apart a special grant for upgradation of conditions in jails.

    The Finance Commission has hoped that the establishment of additional courts and reforms in laws and procedures would result in substantial reduction, if not elimination, of pending court cases over a period of five years. The Union Law and Justice Minister, Shri Arun Jaitley, recently hinted that the experiment could be extended beyond five years, if necessary. He also hinted that a long-term road map is being charted out by the Government for judicial reforms. With all this, the people will await the time when the wheels of justice will begin to move faster and faster.