The recent rape and murder of a young veterinary doctor in Hyderabad has yet again raised concern over women’s safety in the country. As the four accused were shot dead a few days after the incident, the debate shifted to whether such instant justice without trial is acceptable or not in a civilised society.
Nearly 60 lakh criminal cases have been pending for more than five years in the country, and hence a fresh look at the laws is essential to render justice to victims without delay and protect the rights of the accused. Reforms are required for the police, the forensics wing, the prosecution, the courts and the laws.
Role of the police
It is the police who set the criminal justice system into motion by initiating an investigation. A police officer handling law-and-order duties may not be able to pay adequate attention to that specialised field.
Hence, law and order and investigation duties must be separated, which the Supreme Court has recommended in its order on police reforms. Though practical difficulties come in the way of its full implementation, a specialised unit can be started in every district to investigate crimes of a grave nature such as murder and rape.
Often, the police delay filing of chargesheets. Sometimes, chargesheets are returned for rectification. Forensic reports too are delayed as just a few forensic labs exist. More labs should be opened with capabilities for cyberforensics, DNA testing, handwriting comparison and so on. Every district should have one.
Even after the chargesheet is submitted in the court, there is considerable delay in taking the cases on file and committing them to the court. Special courts exclusively for trial of heinous offences such as murder and dacoity must be set up with powers to take cognisance of offences directly and conduct trial on a day-to-day basis.
Many provisions of the Criminal Procedure Code (Cr.PC) enable the accused to delay trial. Such provisions intended to provide every opportunity to the accused to defend themselves are often used to delay and scuttle trial. Once the court takes cognisance of a case, it should be the bounden duty of the accused to appear for the trial. The accused should be put to jeopardy if they try to abscond.
The accused adopt many delaying tactics — absenting themselves one after the other without receiving copies of documents relied upon by the prosecution; failing to appear to give explanation for the charges; and filing discharge petitions one after the other and later going on appeal.
When the trial finally starts, the witnesses are first examined but the defence counsel defers cross-examination. They are later recalled one by one for cross-examination. The accused then seek repeated adjournments by filing petitions under Section 317 of the Cr.PC.
Examination of witnesses, questioning of the accused and so on too are deferred.
Another method is to abscond and remain untraceable for a long time. Warrants are then issued against the accused.
If one absconding accused is secured and produced before the court, the co-accused will abscond one by one.
After closure of prosecution, the defence counsel invariably represent that they propose to examine the defence witnesses. But after many adjournments, they will say there are no such witnesses. Likewise, the oral arguments are delayed by giving excuses such as personal inconvenience of counsel.
Amendments to the law
To overcome these problems, the following amendments in the Cr.PC need to be carried out.
Section 207 may be amended to furnish copies to counsel when the accused is absent. Sections 228 and 240 may be amended to get explanation from counsel on the charges framed in case the accused is absent.
Under Sections 227 and 239, a time limit of 30 days from the date of receipt of copies may be set for filing discharge petition.
Section 317 may be amended to enable the court to examine witnesses in the absence of the accused and their counsel.
In the revisional powers under Section 397 and inherent powers under Section 482, necessary provisions may be inserted so that the other party is heard before passing interim orders on the investigation and prosecution.
The bail provisions under Sections 436 and 437 may be amended so that the accused who violate bail conditions can be detained till the completion of the trial.
Provisions may be included in the bail bond to obtain the consent of the accused to conduct the trial in his absence in case of breach of conditions.
Some of the frequently reported offences under Sections 294(b) 147, 148, 279, 324, 384 and 498A of the Indian Penal Code which are not very serious in nature can be brought under compoundable offences.
In addition, the number of appeals should be capped, and the court must extensively use videoconferencing to examine witnesses.
(The writer is the Inspector-General of Police, Crime Branch Criminal Investigation Department, Chennai)