Immediately after a Sessions Court in Mumbai handed Bollywood superstar Salman Khan a five–year sentence in a hit-and-run case last week, the state government released information that the conviction rate of the state’s lower courts between January 15 and March 15 this year had been 32.93%. It said that out of a total of 47,410 cases in which either conviction or acquittal had taken place, the number of convictions was 15,614. The state’s conviction rate last year was a mere 15%.
One must appreciate the government for its perfect sense of timing in making the data available to the media, but this has also made probing minds ask: Will the government continue to expedite justice in future? And, if it is willing to do so, will such effort be sufficient to enhance conviction rate further? Do the incumbent governments in the state and Centre lag behind in addressing a burning issue such as this? The probing becomes even more pointed in view of the Salman Khan case.
The Salman litigation evoked multi-cornered debates across the country when he got interim bail and had his sentence suspended in two days after being convicted. The country saw a vertical divide between Salman fans, who celebrated his bail, and the people who argued that litigants other than Salman also deserved similar treatment.
Much has been discussed about the merits and demerits of the Salman case since then. This column deals with the requirements that will strengthen the mechanism called delivery of justice, which includes the judiciary (the courts), the prosecution and investigating agencies.
Looking at the current scenario in Maharashtra, the judiciary needs additional judicial officers, extra staff and infrastructure like new courtrooms and residential facilities for the staff. On the other side, the prosecution gets badly affected because of lack of quality public prosecutors (in many cases special prosecutors have been hired). The investigators fail because they do not necessarily get efficient law officers to consult for making cases strong enough to withstand the battery of defence lawyers.
According to information accessed last month, the state has not been able to follow recommendations of the National Court Management System and the 14th Finance Commission on setting up additional courts, including fast track courts at the district level.
Till April this year, 1,784 officers were working in 1,725 courtrooms despite the sanctioned strength of 2,072. On the infrastructure side, 393 courtrooms were being constructed, and 149 courts were being held in rented buildings. These statistics are for the district and subordinate courts across the state, including Mumbai and its suburbs.
Following a conclave regarding judicial reforms held in New Delhi recently, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis had informed the media that the state had received R99.75 crore under central-sponsored scheme for improving its judiciary. He had promised to appoint at least 900 new staff members in the lower judiciary at the earliest, and added that the number of the Bombay High Court judges would be increased from 75 to 94.
But the state government alone cannot do the challenging job of reforming the judicial system. The Centre, too, will have to contribute significantly in expediting justice. When he was in Mumbai in February this year for the valedictory function of the sesquicentennial celebration of the Advocates Association of Western India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had blamed the pendency of court cases on vague laws, which, he said, could be interpreted in many ways. We expect the PM to revise such laws. Modi had also said that the credibility of the judiciary would be enhanced only when both the winner and the loser in a court case are satisfied.
Considering the state’s increased conviction rate, strengthening the judicial system should continue to top the government’s agenda. One of the reasons behind public outrage in Salman’s case is that the actor’s trial was conducted for 13 years, but his bail process did not take the time the people had been expecting in view of the delays in the past.
So, it is required that the Centre, state and the judiciary join hands to prepare a collaborative plan to ensure that litigations do not drag for years. The people of this country strongly believe that justice delayed is justice denied.
And, more importantly, they demand that quality justice should be delivered.
The writer is Political Editor of mid-day