Of 1 lakh pending rape cases in 2012, only 14% disposed of

Rape casesIn Delhi, out of 2,007 cases tried in 2012, 1,404 remained pending and the conviction rate was almost 15 per cent. (PTI)
The outrage over the Mumbai gangrape has brought back into focus the need for a swift justice delivery system. Although the Centre came up with a new law promising swift justice to calm public anger after the December 16 gangrape in Delhi, government data shows it will take a while before it becomes a reality mainly because of procedural infirmities and overburdened courts.

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Statistics released by the Law Ministry show how rape cases crawl. Out of more than one lakh pending cases across the country in 2012, only around 14,700 or 14.5 per cent could be decided. And the conviction rate has been as poor. Only 3,563 people were convicted while more than 11,500 people were acquitted.

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State-wise data shows that many other states lagged behind Delhi, which was the epicentre of last year's gangrape protests, in disposing of rape cases and registering convictions. In Delhi, out of 2,007 cases tried in 2012, 1,404 remained pending and the conviction rate was almost 15 per cent.

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Most number of rape cases 15,197 were tried in West Bengal. The state also topped the list in the number of pending rape cases more than 14,000. Conviction rate was as low as 0.7 per cent. In Maharashtra, 14,414 cases were tried and 13,388 remained pending. The conviction rate was 1.1 per cent.

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In Madhya Pradesh, 8,425 cases out of 11,273 remained pending, with the conviction rate at 4.85 per cent. In Arunachal Pradesh, out of 548 cases, only 30 were decided and convictions were recorded only in three cases. Only Mizoram and Uttarakhand recorded a more than 20 per cent conviction rate.

The 2013 Criminal Law Amendment Act aims at addressing some of the main reasons for the cases plodding along for unacceptable period of time. However, past experience shows the new law will have to overcome several obstacles before it actually starts delivering.

Several previous amendments in the criminal law are still in the quest of relevance in trials. Like Section 309 in the CrPC, which was amended in 2009 to lay down that trial of rape cases be preferably completed within two months. In order to ensure speedy trial, it was said that the court shall not adjourn the case except for extraordinary circumstances.

Similarly, in 2008, amendments in CrPC provided for audio-video recording of statements of the rape victims as well as accused so that the testimonies hold water during trial. It was also said in the amendments that the victim's statement should be recorded at a safe place or a place of her choice as far as practicable by a woman police officer in the presence of her parents or guardian. The amendments also said that a rape trial should be an "in-camera trial" and "shall be conducted as far as practicable by a woman Judge or Magistrate".

In 2006, CrPC was amended to include the collection of DNA samples in the protocol for the medical examination of rape victims.

However, all these procedural mandates are followed more in breach. Some provisions are defeated due to lack of infrastructure both on the part of the court and the investigating agencies, and some others due to lack of adequate zeal.

Several Supreme Court judgments have also impressed upon the lower courts to conduct day-to-day trial trial, as mandated under Section 309 of the CrPC. These verdicts underscored that the accepted practice of adjournments had "caused serious inroads into criminal jurisprudence".

But the lower courts have had their own set of problems, with infrastructural issues being primary. There are insufficient number of judges and lack some of the basic amenities to comply with the requirement of Section 309 CrPC. It is implausible to expect a trial court to finish a rape trial within two months when the number of cases to be heard every day crosses 20.

In some states, there are not enough women judges to adjudicate rape cases. The most glaring example would be Delhi where six fast track courts have been earmarked to hear rape cases but only two of them are presided over by women judges.

Also, several high courts are still to earmark fast-track courts although it only requires identification of the existing courts and not creation of new courts.

Add to all this the procedural deficiency by the investigating agency, which, due to their own issues, cannot have DNA or other forensic sampling done, nor can they have women police investigating officers in all the cases. Their lapses, leading to weak scientific and other relevant evidence, also adversely affect not only the period of a trial but also its outcome.

Justice Usha Mehra, who headed a panel to review responses to the December 16 Delhi gangrape case and suggest measures to improve safety of women in the national capital, regretted not all her suggestions to take care of procedural infirmities were heeded to in the new law.

"Yes, there are problems with procedural compliance and you have to have certain specific provisions to rectify them. Investigation has to be a specific branch, independent of normal policing. How good can be an investigation in a rape case when a police officer, who is on patrolling duty, is supposed to also investigate and stand in the court?" she said.

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