Delay in hearing appeals as good as justice denied

The wheels of justice, the saying goes, grind slowly but grind exceedingly fine. In the Indian context, it would be more true to say that they grind so exceedingly slowly that there can be nothing fine about the outcome. When we set out to look at instances of gross miscarriage of justice, we found several cases where people were convicted of heinous crimes and locked up for years before being found innocent on appeal.

Given the state of our high courts, this is hardly surprising. Consider the cold statistics first. As of end of June 2014, there were nearly 45 lakh cases pending in the country’s 24 high courts. That’s an average of nearly 2 lakh cases per high court. This is mind boggling in itself, but pales in comparison to the situation in Allahabad HC, where approximately 7 lakh cases are pending.

The extent of pending cases is only to be expected when you look a little deeper into the same official data. It also tells you that as of end of June 2014, there were 265 vacancies for judges in the HCs against a sanctioned strength of 906, a shortfall of almost 30%. In the case of Allahabad HC, 70 of 160 positions were vacant or, about 44% of the judges required for the voluminous work have not been appointed.

Of the cases pending, about 10.3 lakh in all the HCs and 3.5 lakh in Allahabad alone were criminal cases. Assume for argument’s sake that just one in a hundred of these cases will end up in the acquittal of the person or persons convicted by the lower courts — the actual acquittal rate will, of course, be much higher, but even if 1% of those convicted is innocent — then over 10,000 people in the country are wrongly locked currently. They are in jail despite being innocent of the crime they are said to have committed. For a system supposedly based on the principle that it is better for ten guilty people to go scot-free than for one innocent to be wrongly convicted, that is a shocking statistic.

It isn’t as if a person who has been wrongly convicted can count on a quick reprieve on appeal. In Allahabad HC, for instance, it takes, on average, 30 years for appeals against conviction in a lower court to be decided. The Rajasthan HC also has criminal cases pending since 1985. In Bombay HC, you could wait anywhere between two and 20 years, but the average time it takes for an appeal to be heard is four to seven years if a convict is in jail and the sentence is over 10 years; and 10-15 years if the convict is on bail pending the appeal hearing.

The exact period of waiting may vary from HC to HC, but in most cases it runs into several years. And if the crime involved is murder, the wrongfully convicted person will be serving time while he or she waits. And for a very long time. By the time they are acquitted, most have wasted their best years in conviction. If this isn’t travesty of justice, what is?

Here are some real cases. One Ayodhya was convicted by the Gonda district judge for dacoity and murder in 1982 and appealed promptly. He was fi nally acquitted in September this year after having been in jail for two years and 30 more years under the shadow of a wrongful conviction though out on bail. Getting employment or social acceptance in this period must have been next to impossible.

Kanem Anjamma of East Godavari in Andhra was convicted in January 2010 along with her husband for murdering their neighbour G Nageswara Rao in 2007. Locked up for over five years, Anjamma finally was acquitted by HC in June this year. Kavita Sharma and her alleged paramour, Krishna Kumar Sain, were arrested in 2004 for murdering Kavita’s husband and convicted by the trial court in 2006. In July this year, the Rajasthan HC acquitted them. They had spent 11 years in jail.

The loss of their freedom apart, each of these people had to carry the stigma of being criminals and murderers and in most cases by the time the grinding wheels of justice spat out their final verdict, there really wasn’t much of a life to return to. That these are not isolated cases, but are illustrative of a deep malaise, is evident from the statistics on pendency of cases. The adage about justice delayed being justice denied has never been truer or more powerfully brought home.

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