NEW DELHI — Fast-track courts set up in India to speed prosecution of rape cases have not had the dramatic impact that advocates hoped for, interviews show.
India toughened its rape and sexual violence law three years ago after a brutal gang rape led to widespread outcry and a national debate about violence against women. It also launched an effort to fast-track rape cases and other crimes against women mired in the country’s overburdened judicial system, with 399 courts around the country.
Interviews with lawyers, activists and prosecutors show the quality and success of the courts, which are administered by the states, vary widely. Some reported that trials referred to the fast-track system were concluding more quickly, while others said they did not see an improvement.
Others described proceedings bogged down from long waits for forensic evidence, police reports and repeated adjournments, with witnesses turning hostile and refusing to testify because they have settled the matter with the family of a suspect.
According to an amendment to Indian rape law, rape cases must be heard daily and be concluded within two months after charges are filed.
“The fast-track courts are functional, but they don’t exclusively try only women’s cases, even the ones that were meant to try just those, because the caseload is so huge,” said Vikas Saini, a probation officer in the state of Haryana. Saini said that disposal rates have increased, but “it really depends on the investigation and the police.”
The country’s capital of New Delhi, which has more rapes than any city, has a backlog of 3,487 cases in its fast-track courts, officials said, with some cases languishing for three years. There were 127 guilty verdicts in 2015, which made up 14 percent of judgments.
In the southern state of Kerala, Aleyamma Vijayan of the Sakhi Women’s Resource Center said that many rape cases remained backlogged, including some that are 10 to 12 years old.
Law and Justice Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said, however, that the courts are having a positive impact: The national conviction rate for rape cases rose a percentage point to 28 percent between 2013 to 2014, according to the most recent National Crime Records Bureau report.
A study of 10 fast-track rape courts in the southern state of Karnataka by the Center for Law and Policy Research in Bangalore told a different story. Courts there returned a 17 percent conviction rate, lower than the national average. The study found that 80 percent of acquittals happened because witnesses recanted their testimony, in part because there was little police protection for them. Nor was there additional training for judges and prosecutors or dedicated courtrooms.
“What we found surprising was there was nothing that distinguished these courts in any way from regular courts,” said Jayna Kothari, one of the study’s authors. “There’s no use setting these up these courts if there’s no way to differentiate them from the rest of the criminal justice system.”
This was not the first time India has turned to fast-track courts to address the woes of its court system, plagued by judge shortages, unruly lawyers and aging infrastructure. The country's first effort at fast-tracking cleared more than 3 million cases but lost steam because of funding cuts in 2011. Critics said that the courts provided a quick fix but there were better ways of addressing the system’s failures, such as adding more judges.
India plans to spend $615 million in the next five years for 1,800 fast-track courts for women, children, the elderly and other vulnerable populations, officials said.