Indians need a faster track to justice

Amrit Dhillon says Delhi rape case throws spotlight on an overwhelmed court system

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 February, 2013, 2:45am

The recent gang rape of a 23-year-old woman in New Delhi jolted India into reflecting on how it treats women, but it has also stirred up outrage over the legal system. If the authorities, prompted by public fury over the woman's agony and later death, had not set up a fast-track court in the capital to try the alleged rapists, the victim's family would have undergone the same experience as the families of other rape victims - waiting 10, 15 or 20 years for a verdict.

The court, which began proceedings last week, is expected to deliver a verdict in the next few weeks or months.

Fast-track courts were introduced in India in 2001 to speed up an unbelievably protracted legal process that leaves Indians seeking justice in limbo and delays justice to a point where it is effectively denied.

The system is clogged with an estimated 30 million cases crawling their way through the courts. Children grow up while parents wait to hear who will get custody of them, siblings die while waiting for a ruling on their inheritance, and men and women wait for years to remarry because their divorce takes years to come through.

Even worse is the plight of families whose loved ones have been murdered, raped, abused or trafficked. They can die before getting justice.

In 2009, the High Court in New Delhi said it was so behind in its work that it could take up to 466 years to clear the backlog. A parliamentary report of 2002 looking into the judicial delays cited cases that went back to the 1950s.

The Indian legal system needs a complete overhaul. One reason for these delays is the lack of judges. India, with 1.2 billion people, has 11 judicial officers for every million people, compared with roughly 100 per million in the United States.

Another reason is the inordinate delays allowed by India's legal procedures. Files can take an eternity to move from one person to another and litigants are permitted to ask for endless adjournments and appeals. Lawyers love it because it bumps up their costs.

Legal experts say the procedures of the criminal justice system should be altered so that time limits are set for each stage of a trial. They also argue for more courts to be set up and more money to be spent on the judicial system so that it serves the needs of justice better.

Everyone knows what needs to be done, but whether anyone will act is another matter altogether.

The family of the Delhi gang rape victim are "lucky" in that they will see justice soon for their daughter. Her death galvanised the nation into reflecting on the subservient status of Indian women. If the trial can trigger a wholesale reform of the legal system, then the woman's death will leave a lasting legacy of benefit to millions of Indians.

Amrit Dhillon is a freelance writer in India