Recently, Delhi witnessed large scale protests by various groups demanding stricter punishment and speedier trial in cases of sexual assault against women. In light of the protests, the central government has constituted a Commission (headed by Justice Verma) to suggest possible amendments in the criminal law to ensure speedier disposal of cases relating to sexual assault. Though the Supreme Court, in 1986, had recognised speedy trial to be a fundamental right, India continues to have a high number of pending cases. In 2012, the net pendency in High Courts and subordinate courts decreased by over 6 lakh cases. However, there is still a substantial backlog of cases across various courts in the country. As per the latest information given by the Ministry of Law and Justice, there are 43.2 lakh cases pending in the High Courts and 2.69 crore cases pending in the district courts.
After the recent gang-rape of a 23 year old girl, the Delhi High Court directed the state government to establish five Fast Track Courts (FTCs) for the expeditious adjudication of cases relating to sexual assault. According to a news report, other states such as Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu have also begun the process of establishing FTCs for rape cases. In this blog, we look at the status of pending cases in various courts in the country, the number of vacancies of judges and the status of FTCs in the country. Vacancies in the High Courts and the Subordinate Courts One of the reasons for the long delay in the disposal of cases is the high number of vacancies in position for judges in the High Courts and the District Courts of the country. As of December 1, 2012, the working strength of the High Court judges was 613 as against the sanctioned strength of 895 judges. This reflects a 32% vacancy of judges across various High Courts in the country. The highest number of vacancies is in the Allahabad High Court with a working strength of 86 judges against the sanctioned strength of 160 judges (i.e. vacancy of 74 judges). The situation is not much better at the subordinate level. As on September 30, 2011, the sanctioned strength of judges at the subordinate level was 18,123 judges as against a working strength of 14,287 judges (i.e. 21% vacancy). The highest vacancy is in Gujarat with 794 vacancies of judges, followed by Bihar with 690 vacancies. Fast Track Courts The 11th Finance Commission had recommended a scheme for the establishment of 1734 FTCs for the expeditious disposal of cases pending in the lower courts. In this regard, the Commission had allocated Rs 500 crore. FTCs were to be established by the state governments in consultation with the respective High Courts. An average of five FTCs were to be established in each district of the country. The judges for these FTCs were appointed on an adhoc basis. The judges were selected by the High Courts of the respective states. There are primarily three sources of recruitment. First, by promoting members from amongst the eligible judicial officers; second, by appointing retired High Court judges and third, from amongst members of the Bar of the respective state. FTCs were initially established for a period of five years (2000-2005). However, in 2005, the Supreme Court directed the central government to continue with the FTC scheme, which was extended until 2010-2011. The government discontinued the FTC scheme in March 2011. Though the central government stopped giving financial assistance to the states for establishing FTCs, the state governments could establish FTCs from their own funds. The decision of the central government not to finance the FTCs beyond 2011 was challenged in the Supreme Court. In 2012, the Court upheld the decision of the central government. It held that the state governments have the liberty to decide whether they want to continue with the scheme or not. However, if they decide to continue then the FTCs have to be made a permanent feature. As of September 3, 2012, some states such as Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Kerala decided to continue with the FTC scheme. However, some states such as Haryana and Chhattisgarh decided to discontinue it. Other states such as Delhi and Karnataka have decided to continue the FTC scheme only till 2013.
Table 1: Number of Fast Track Courts and the pending cases in FTCs (As on March 31, 2011)
|State||No of FTC||No of cases transferred until March 31, 2011||Pending cases|
Sources: Lok Sabha Unstarred Question No.498, March 3, 2012; PRS
. Rajya Sabha Starred Question no 231 dated December 10, 2012.
. Brij Mohan Lal v Union of India (2005) 3 SCR 103.
The Uttarakhand Assembly concluded a two-day session on November 30, 2022. The session was scheduled to be held over five days. In this post we look at the legislative business that was carried out in the Assembly, and the state of state legislatures.
13 Bills were introduced and passed within two days
As per the Session Agenda, a total of 19 Bills were listed for introduction in the span of two days. 13 of these were listed to be discussed and passed on the second day. These included the Uttarakhand Protection of Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2022, University of Petroleum and Energy Studies (Amendment), Bill, 2022, and the Uttarakhand Anti-Littering and Anti-Spitting (Amendment) Bill, 2022.
The Assembly had proposed to discuss and pass each Bill (barring two) within five minutes (see Figure 1). Two Bills were allocated 20 minutes each for discussion and passing - the Haridwar Universities Bill, 2022, and the Public Service (Horizontal Reservation for Women) Bill, 2022. As per news reports, the Assembly passed all 13 Bills within these two days (this excludes the Appropriation Bills). This raises the question on the amount of scrutiny that these Bills were subject to, and the quality of such laws when the legislature intends to pass them within mere minutes.
Figure 1: Excerpt of Uttarakhand Assembly's November 2022 Session Agenda
Law making requires deliberation, scrutiny
Our law-making institutions have several tools at their disposal to ensure that before a law is passed, it has been examined thoroughly on various aspects such as constitutionality, clarity, financial and technical capacity of the state to implement provisions, among others. The Ministry/Department piloting a Bill could share a draft of the Bill for public feedback (pre-legislative scrutiny). While Bills get introduced, members may raise issues on constitutionality of the proposed law. Once introduced, Bills could be sent to legislative committees for greater scrutiny. This allows legislators to deliberate upon individual provisions in depth, understand if there may be constitutional challenges or other issues with any provision. This also allows experts and affected stakeholders to weigh in on the provisions, highlight issues, and help strengthen the law.
However, when Bills are introduced and passed within mere minutes, it barely gives legislators the time to go through the provisions and mull over implications, issues, or ways to improve the law for affected parties. It also raises the question of what the intention of the legislature is when passing laws in a hurry without any discussion. Often, such poorly thought laws are also challenged in Courts.
For instance, the Uttarakhand Assembly passed the Uttarakhand Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2022 in this session (five minutes had been allocated for the discussion and passing of the Bill). The 2022 Bill amends the 2018 Act which prohibits forceful religious conversions, and provides that conversion through allurement or marriage will be unlawful. The Bill has provisions such as requiring an additional notice to be sent to the District Magistrate (DM) for a conversion, and that reconversion to one’s immediate previous religion will not be considered a conversion. Some of these provisions seem similar to other laws that were passed by states and have been struck down by or have been challenged in Courts. For example, the Madhya Pradesh High Court while examining the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2021 noted that providing a notice to the DM for a conversion of religion violates the right to privacy as the right includes the right to remain silent. It extends that understanding to the right to decide on one’s faith. The Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2006 exempted people who reconvert to their original religion from giving a public notice of such conversion. The Himachal Pradesh High Court had struck down this provision as discriminatory and violative of the right to equality. The Court also noted that the right to change one’s belief cannot be taken away for maintaining public order.
Uttarakhand MLAs may not have had an opportunity to think about how issues flagged by Courts may be addressed in a law that regulates religious conversions.
Most other state Assemblies also pass Bills without adequate scrutiny
In 2021 44% states passed Bills on the day it was introduced or on the next day. Between January 2018 and September 2022, the Gujarat Assembly introduced 92 Bills (excluding Appropriation Bills). 91 of these were passed in the same day as their introduction. In the 2022 Monsoon Session, the Goa Assembly passed 28 Bills in the span of two days. This is in addition to discussion and voting on budgetary allocation to various government departments.
Figure 2: Time taken by state legislatures to pass Bills in 2021
Note: The chart above does not include Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim. A Bill is considered passed within a day if it was passed on the day of introduction or on the next day. For states with bicameral legislatures, bills have to be passed in both Houses. This has been taken into account in the above chart for five states having Legislative Councils, except Bihar (information was not available for Council).
Sources: Assembly websites, E-Gazette of various states and Right to Information requests; PRS.
Occasionally, the time actually spent deliberating upon a Bill is lesser than the allocated time. This may be due to disruptions in the House. The Himachal Pradesh Assembly provides data on the time actually spent discussing Bills. For example, in the August 2022 Session, it spent an average of 12 minutes to discuss and pass 10 Bills. However, the Uttarakhand Assembly allocated only five minutes to discuss each Bill in its November 2022 Session. This indicates the lack of intent of certain state legislatures to improve their functioning.
In the case of Parliament, a significant portion of scrutiny is also carried out by the Department Related Standing Committees, even when Parliament is not in session. In the 14th Lok Sabha (LS), 60% of the Bills introduced were sent to Committees for detailed examination, and in the 15th LS, 71% were sent. These figures have reduced recently – in the 16th LS 27% of the Bills were sent to Committees, and so far in the 17th LS, 13% have been sent. However, across states, sending Bills to Committees for detailed examination is often the exception than the norm. In 2021, less than 10% of the Bills were sent to Committees. None of the Bills passed by the Uttarakhand Assembly had been examined by a committee. States that are an exception here include Kerala which has 14 subject Committees, and Bills are regularly sent to these for examination. However, these Committees are headed by their respective Ministers, which reduces the scope of independent scrutiny that may be undertaken.