Delhi gang rape: Fast-track courts, juvenile laws don’t guarantee justice
(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author, and not necessarily of Thomson Reuters)
During the anti-rape protests across India in December, two slogans stood out among all the placards and banners — “Hang the rapists” and “We want justice”.
It was a case that stirred national debate and forced the state government in New Delhi to set up five fast-track courts to try sexual offences against women.
It’s nothing new. The Indian government set up 1,734 fast-track courts in the country a decade ago. The purpose was to quickly clear pending cases. But some legal experts say that the courts are not always a good thing, and many of these courts disbanded after the government stopped funding them.
“Fast-track courts were set up in Rajasthan to try some rape cases, but were forced to shut down due to ‘high costs’,” Supreme Court lawyer Pinky Anand told Reuters in an email.
In 2006, a fast-track court in Alwar, Rajasthan convicted the son of a police officer less than a month after he raped a German scholar. (The prisoner escaped while on parole, and has been missing ever since).
Fast-tracking cases may not always be the best option anyway.
“One example of fast-track courts not delivering justice is the trials after the Gujarat carnage where several cases tried by fast-track courts resulted in acquittal,” women’s rights lawyer Flavia Agnes told Reuters via email.
Some cases were reopened and retried after appeals to the Supreme Court while some were moved to other states to ensure fair trials, she said.
“So fast-track court does not mean faster justice. It could also result in faster injustice,” Agnes said.
Agnes supports dedicated courts to try crimes against women, with trained and hand-picked judges.
“In Maharashtra, in most districts, we already have special dedicated sessions courts for adjudicating over matters concerning violence against women such as rape, dowry, murder,” Agnes said.
The good thing about fast-track courts is that the cases are heard almost every day. But are these fast-track courts, especially the new ones in New Delhi, a guarantee of quick and effective justice?
“It will make a lot of difference,” says H.S. Phoolka, a senior lawyer at the Delhi High Court. A delay in justice only helps the accused and when justice is delivered faster, it can also act as a deterrent, he said.
But what if the accused is a minor, as in the Delhi gang rape case? The Juvenile Justice Act says that a person under 18 years old can be punished only by being sent to a juvenile reform facility for three years. That means that there is no chance that the accused rapist will get the death penalty for murder, Anand said.
The possibility that the accused rapist will get off easy has angered activists and lawyers who want the Act to be amended to lower the cut-off age, but Phoolka said that it could be short-sighted to alter the law for the entire country .
“I feel changing the law because of just one case and taking away the rights of so many children will not be a right thing,” Phoolka said.
The question on the minds of the millions of people watching the progress of this case will be a more pressing one: what can the law do to rectify the murder and gang rape of this 23-year-old woman? In the case of the juvenile who was part of the gang that allegedly savaged her, the answer appears to be, “not much.”