Need for speed

While sexual violence must be effectively punished, due process must not be distorted

Investigative and legal systems are now being comprehensively examined for how they discourage women from reporting sexual crimes, and the way the process often becomes its own punishment. While this focus is wholly welcome, this is also a moment to flag areas of concern. For instance, the demand that the norms of juvenile justice not apply in "special cases" like the December 16 gangrape, is misguided. Laws are not made for exceptional circumstances, they lay out general principles that must apply to all. To single out cases for different treatment would erode the very basis of the law, its impartial authority.

Another point of concern lies in the parallel process being considered for the crime of sexual violence. Fast-track courts set up specifically for such cases were an acknowledgement of the way assault survivors are particularly oppressed by the slow judicial process. Roughly 95,000 rape cases are pending in courts, and India's ratio of judges to population is among the lowest in the world. There are repeated adjournments, often for the counsel's convenience. Witnesses are not questioned at a single stretch, the processing of forensic evidence is also often a drawn-out process. The danger, though, is making a fetish of speed or the number of verdicts. Public impatience and anger must not goad the courts into cutting corners or denying the accused their constitutional right of a full defence. An exhaustive investigation, a careful sifting of the claims of defence and prosecution, and time to consider the truths that emerge, are of utmost importance. In fact, cases can collapse in fast-track courts because of shoddy investigation. The judiciary must examine what it can realistically do to step up the pace work double shifts as suggested by Justice J.S. Verma, strictly limit adjournments, etc while making sure the accused get a thorough and fair-minded hearing. As the law minister has observed, judicial hurry may be as counter-productive as delay.

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