Element of subjectivity has to be removed for a responsive criminal judicial system, says Prashant Pandey

Everyone closely associated with the Priyadarshini Mattoo murder case heaved a collective sigh of relief when the Delhi High Court reversed the acquittal of the prime accused early this week. In its wake, though, the entire saga has raised several questions that beg for an answer.

While justice has been delivered in the case, it can certainly not be taken as proof of everything being hunky dory with the criminal justice system.

The very fact that the appeal against the acquittal in the case lay in limbo for six long years due to reasons most bizarre and the case itself came back into the spotlight riding on another failure of the justice delivery system (acquittals in Jessica Lal murder case) certainly leaves a lot to be desired.

One of the reasons why the acquittal of the accused by the trial court in the Mattoo murder case rankled even more was the observation of the court that it knew the accused was the culprit but there was not enough evidence to prove it.

While there have been other cases where murderers have managed to escape conviction for lack of evidence, in Mattoo's case the message that went out was that the accused managed to escape the law by a whisker. The High Court in its judgment this week also made critical observations against the trial court for its failure to appreciate the available evidence. This raises the question whether something should be done to reduce the element of subjectivity while appreciating evidence.

Further, in its verdict the High Court also indicted the prosecution and the investigating agency. The Court observed that since the accused was the son of a senior Indian Police Service officer, there was an effort to shield him. The indictments by the High Court of all the official agencies concerned with the case indicate just how deep the malaise runs within the system.

The sad part is that these problems refuse to disappear. Occasionally, of course, people become hopeful of justice -- like in this case and also the much talked about Jessica Lal murder case -- but soon such cases get relegated to some deep corner of public memory.

Therefore, looking beyond the current euphoria of victory there are two things that need to be taken care of for a healthy and responsive criminal judicial system. One, the element of subjectivity -- which is different from discretion or interpretation -- has to be removed. And two, there is an urgent need for speedy trials and accountability of the prosecuting agency towards completion of the judicial process within a time frame.

For instance, had the appeal in the Mattoo murder case been pursued in right earnest in 1999, her family would have been a relieved lot much earlier.

In so far as subjectivity is concerned, the investigation, prosecution, trial and verdict in a case should not depend on the intensity of the public outcry or a media campaign. In the Mattoo murder case it seemed as if every agency concerned was waiting for a public outcry. Once that came through, everything else fell in place.

This case, too, should remind those at the helm that police reforms and reforms in criminal judicial system are simply indispensable. Just for the sake of argument: had the inquisitorial system of justice -- something that has been suggested by the Malimath Committee on criminal judicial reforms -- been in place, the court would have asked the investigating agency to probe further and dig out more credible evidence rather than letting the accused go scot-free when convinced that he was the culprit.

That could have saved a lot of harassment for the family of the deceased and embarrassment for the investigating agency and the prosecution. As of now, though, these and other similar recommendations seem destined to gather dust even more than two years after they were mooted.

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