Should it really take 20 years for a case to be decided? That is the question I am left pondering over after witnessing the entire episode on Salman Khan’s conviction.
Long-pending criminal litigations have become the norm rather than the exception in India. The news is often filled with age-old cases getting decided after 15 years, 18 years, 20 years…as if the race is for the lengthiest case in the world.
Here are some recent examples: Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, a self-styled godman, was convicted on the charges of rape 15 years after the case was registered; Daler Mehndi, who was accused in a 2003 human trafficking case, was convicted after 15 years in 2018; Lalu Prasad, recently held guilty in the fourth fodder scam case, was convicted after 21 years.
Khan is no stranger to the problem of long and lengthy cases that plague the Indian judiciary. The “hit and run” case in which the actor was declared guilty by a lower court in Mumbai went on for 13 years, between 2002 and 2015. The blackbuck case is another feather in his cap. It has been 20 years since the complaint against Khan for killing blackbucks was filed. After a series of convictions and acquittals by the lower court and the high court, Khan has yet again been found guilty.
A snapshot of Salman Khan’s case data
The chief judicial magistrate of Jodhpur district delivered a 201-page judgment in the case of State v. Salman Khan. As per the information provided on the e-courts website (a government-maintained website that helps tracking day-to-day progress of cases filed in courts), the case was formally registered in the court on November 9, 2000, under the Wildlife Protection Act. Although the entire history of the proceedings is not provided on the website, hearings from July 6, 2013, onwards are available. Figure 1 provides the percentage of hearings spent on different stages since July 6, 2013.
One can clearly note that since 2013, the court has spent maximum hearings on the evidence stage, followed by arguments and then final arguments stage. There is no doubt that the evidence stage constitutes a major chunk of the hearings in subordinate courts.
In a separate article published in ‘Approaches to Justice: A Report by DAKSH‘, an analysis of hearings in subordinate courts in Delhi revealed that 36% of the hearings were dedicated to the evidence stage. This may be primarily due to the fact that cross-examination of several witnesses and recording of evidence takes a considerable amount of time. The absence of parties and witnesses can also prolong the proceedings, leading to multiple hearings at the evidence stage.
Further, data from the e-courts website show that on average, there were 13 days between each of the hearings in Khan’s case. That means that the case was listed at least twice every month. However, one must note that this does not mean that the case was effectively heard on every hearing. Sadly, the e-courts website, which is expected to record the “business on date” for each of the hearings, has not provided these details. It is therefore difficult to ascertain the number of times the proceedings were stalled due to unnecessary adjournments.
Inordinate delays in subordinate courts
As per the National Judicial Data Grid (NJDG), of all the cases pending in subordinate courts in the country, 70% are criminal cases. Amongst these criminal cases, 25% are pending for more than five years. Data from the NJDG suggests that magistrates’ courts are burdened with a huge number of criminal cases. I had previously written an article studying the performance of the top ten magistrates’ courts with the most number of cases pending in the country. Figure 2 provides the oldest cases that were pending in these courts at the time of the study.
The metropolitan magistrate court in Ahmedabad, at the time of the study, had the oldest case dating back to 1961, followed by the civil court in Vadodara which had the oldest case from 1962. With such old cases still pending in criminal courts, it is critical to take up the right initiatives to ensure that cases in the future do not meet the same fate.
Data from DAKSH’s database shows certain cases that took the most amount of time to be disposed in the subordinate courts. Figure 3 presents the years it took for these cases to be disposed in different states.
As per the database, a regular darkhast case in Shrigonda, Maharashtra had taken 63 years to be disposed of. Similarly, an original suit case in the district of Sant Ravidas Nagar in UP took 62 years before it was finally disposed of in the year 2015. However, one must note that these are exceptional cases in our judicial system and do not represent the average disposal timeframe. Nonetheless, unnecessary delays which drag cases on for a long period of time need to be further studied and rectified.
While it is unclear whether Khan will finally be acquitted by the Rajasthan high court, his long-drawn criminal litigation raises several concerns on the unfortunate state of criminal cases in the country. Khan’s case and various other cases pointed out in this article are just some of the examples that highlight the state of the Indian judiciary. Without proper measures, cases will keep getting dragged on for years together. How many more such age-old cases are coming to a close in the nearby years? Only time will tell.
Arunav Kaul is a research associate at DAKSH, Bengaluru, a civil society organisation that undertakes research activities to promote accountability and better governance in India. Views are personal.