Introduction: Judicial delays to criminal trials in Delhi

Introduction: Judicial delays to criminal trials in Delhi

Salar M Khan, Advocate, Delhi, India

This report contains the findings of a study into the nature and extent of judicial delays in criminal trials in the courts of Delhi. The first two chapters comprise one part, speaking to the law in India as a whole. The remaining three chapters comprise another part, addressing the issues, data and specific case studies found in Delhi, which is the national capital and second most populous city in India.

Chapter 1 gives a brief outline of criminal investigation and trial procedures in India in a layperson’s language. This outline facilitates understanding of the empirical analysis and the case studies carried in the later chapters.

Chapter 2 discusses the legal position regarding the obligation to conduct (and the right to obtain) a speedy trial in India. The analysis includes a discussion of India’s obligations as a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Supreme Court’s views on the enforceability of international treaties and instruments in the domestic legal arena.

Chapter 2 also discusses three recent judgments of the Supreme Court, delivered in January 2008, which illustrate how the reality continues to remain diametrically opposite to the pious pronouncements on the importance of ‘speedy trial’. All three cases were murders. In one the proceedings took nearly 29 years, finally culminating with acquittal in the Supreme Court. The trial court had acquitted the accused in 1981 but the high court had reversed this decision and sentenced him to life imprisonment in October 2005. In all, the accused spent about three years in jail. Another followed a delay of 13 years and the other around 20 years.

Chapter 3 details the judicial administration in Delhi, including a brief historical background, such as the number and location of courts, their organizational structure, current case backlog, budgetary allocation, judge-population ratio, case load per judge, etc.

Chapter 4 analyses the nature and extent of delay in criminal trials. The analysis is based upon the cases listed before all the 135 criminal courts of the city on a one particular typical day, selected at random. The study finds that in the sessions courts the overwhelming majority of cases carrying 2006 as the year of commission of offence had been pending for more than a year. Specifically, it shows that approximately 67 per cent of the pending criminal trials are one to five years old, 12 per cent six to ten years old, 4 per cent 11-15 years old, and around 2 per cent pending for more than 15 years. On the date selected a mere 14 per cent of the matters had come up for trial in the same year as the crime allegedly occurred. Similarly, the courts of the Metropolitan Magistrate also have matters pending trial for offences registered more than 19 years ago. The analysis shows that approximately 51 per cent of pending cases in these are between one to five years old, 21 per cent six to ten years old, 7 per cent 11-15 years old, and around 1 per cent pending for more than 15 years. A mere 20 per cent of the matters taken up on the day studied pertained to the year 2007.

Chapter 5 contains ten narrative case studies from the criminal courts of Delhi drawn from the sample of cases obtained by the author of this report. The accused and the victims in all the case studies were poor. The case studies illustrate how criminal trials get delayed and how that affects the accused as well as the victims of crimes. These case studies show the insensitivity of the criminal justice apparatus to the most basic rights of persons, whether victims or accused. The case studies have been selected with a view to illustrating that delays in dispensing justice not only infringe on the rights of the accused who are in custody but also on those accused who are out on bail, as the latter are forced to live for years with a sword of Damocles hanging over their heads. The narratives also show that when the prosecution delays the production of its witnesses, evidence gets destroyed. In one of the cases the material witness had ceased to live at the address on record with the prosecution and could not be examined for this reason. In another case, a material witness died before he could be examined. In a further two cases, the accused persons remained in jail for a long period of time before the court acquitted them.

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