Conviction rates improve when teams of lawyers and social workers supervise progress of individual cases in a spirit of cooperation with officials

Today, the Justice Verma Committee is scheduled to release recommendations on ways to strengthen government’s response to crimes of aggravated sexual assault. There has been a lot of noise in the media calling for harsher punishment for rapists. The demands have only grown louder as details from the barbaric events of the December 16 gang rape and murder in Delhi come to light. While cries for chemical castration and even death for rapists stem from the brutality of the crime, they do not address the root problem: the criminal justice system does not function the way it is meant to function. In fact, the public’s frustration points to a decay of trust in the government’s ability to deliver justice and protect its people.

There have also been quieter, more reasonable voices in the media calling for a stronger, more sensitive, criminal justice system: one that delivers justice swiftly, gives rightful convictions and treats victims with dignity and compassion. While the substantive and procedural rape law is far from perfect, society’s frustration is not based on the inadequacy of the law, but on effective implementation of the law.

The law and reality

In fact, statutory law and Supreme Court and High Court judgments have established a solid legal framework that protects rape victims and requires government authorities to follow victim-friendly procedures. Protections under this legal framework include requiring lawyers and social workers for victims at the police station and for police to take statements in a setting that makes the victim comfortable. At government hospitals, there should be special rooms to examine rape victims, equipped with medical kits that doctors should use to examine the victim and collect crucial evidence. When the victim testifies at trial — vital evidence needed for getting a conviction — it should take place in the judge’s chambers rather than in open court, and whenever possible, before a woman judge. For children, there are even greater protections and accommodations, many of which have been codified in the recently enacted Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012. Unfortunately, there is a gap between this legal framework and practice on the ground.

Collaboration works

Of course, the success of any system comes down to the people who work within the system. The great majority of publicity about people who work within the criminal justice system, especially law enforcement officials, has been negative. Maybe the negative publicity is justified and brings needed attention to problems. But constant antagonism is counterproductive; it drowns out the good work countless police officials do every day. Good people dedicated to public service who work long hours for low pay without adequate training and resources. Yes, there are government officials — police officials, medical practitioners, public prosecutors and judges — who must change their attitudes and do their jobs better. At the same time, it is only human nature that if someone consistently hears negative criticism, they tend to become discouraged and desensitised to the feedback. Either they will sink to the level people expect of them or they will stubbornly refuse to raise their professional standards. There is a better approach that builds positive energy: civil society collaborating with government to strengthen the criminal justice system.

Long-term strategies should focus on changing the culture of the criminal justice system so that it is victim friendly and implements the law. But improving performance immediately merely requires government authorities to follow the law already in place. A mechanism needs to hold government authorities accountable when they do not implement the law, regardless of the reason: whether because they are uninformed, do not have a clear understanding of the law, or it is inconvenient to follow.

An effective way to hold government authorities accountable is to have a team comprising a lawyer and social worker, trained to handle cases of sexual violence, advocate for the victim’s interests at the police station till judgment. The team would work on the ground, advising on the law, supporting the victim and monitoring progress of cases. At first they will likely need to confront officials when the law is not implemented. But their broader approach would be one of a spirit of collaboration and cooperation.

In Delhi

In Delhi, the Rape Crisis Cell under the Delhi Commission for Women partners with non-governmental organisations to provide legal and social support to rape victims. The Delhi Commission for Women’s lawyers start providing oversight only at the trial stage. Still, the National Crime Records Bureau reports that in 2011, Delhi NCT had a 41.5 per cent conviction rate in rape cases compared to the 26.4 per cent national conviction rate. This programme is a good model that provides advocates who represent the victim’s interests, while collaborating with government authorities to strengthen the criminal justice system.

When government authorities collaborate with civil society groups, the criminal justice system functions more effectively: government authorities are more likely to follow victim-friendly procedures, investigations and trials will move more swiftly and conviction rates will rise. When this happens, potential perpetrators will think twice before they aggressively harass women. Women and their families will have greater confidence to report sexual abuse; and society’s faith will steadily grow in the system meant to provide security and protect them.

(Jonathan Derby is a U.S. licensed attorney who has extensive experience in human rights at grass-roots level in India.)

Correction

A correction has been made in this article on January 23, 2013