On November 14, the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012, or Pocso, completed ten years on the statute books in India. Aimed at making the criminal justice system more responsive to the needs of child victims of sexual abuse, this law signified the achievement of an important milestone in the Indian child rights movement. In addition to several procedures to enable speedier justice, the law specifically provided for the time-bound completion of Pocso trials by designated special courts.

In the last ten years, how has the law fared in achieving this objective? A study released in November, titled “A Decade of Pocso: Developments, Challenges and Insights from Judicial Data”, examining 2,30,730 Pocso cases from 28 states and Union Territories, shows that special courts are far from achieving these timelines. One of the authors of this articles is a co-author of the this study.

For instance, of all the Pocso cases disposed of in 2020, nearly 58% had been pending for more than one year. In Delhi, specifically, cases had been pending for more than three-and-a-half years on average before they were disposed of.

Himachal Pradesh was a close second taking nearly three years. The study also found that over the years the proportion of Pocso cases taking more than three years to be disposed of has gradually increased.

Protracted trials have a detrimental impact on the accused and the survivor and ultimately defeat the ends of justice. The fear of being embroiled in a legal battle for years on end may deter survivors and their guardians from reporting such cases.

Even when reported, delays may cause them to not pursue the case. For instance, a 2017 study conducted by the Centre for Child and the Law found that in Assam, the rate of children turning hostile rose with the increasing gap between the lodging of the first information report and the recording of evidence.

Investigating delays

Delays in dispensing justice are problematic, especially when the victims are children. However, while courts have often come under scrutiny for delay in trials, the bigger picture shows that there are several other factors that contribute to the lengthening of Pocso proceedings, which might be beyond the control of the courts themselves.

First, like other fast-track courts in India, Pocso courts are dealing with the consequences of ill-conceived and half-baked policymaking. For instance, the Act only required the designation of existing courts as special courts and not the setting up of new courts, thereby putting additional strain on the already overburdened judicial system. Merely passing a law without building institutional capacity to achieve its objectives is bound to hinder its implementation.

Second, while setting timelines for special courts to complete trials, it is important to remember that they are not immune from the systemic issues affecting the entire criminal justice system where delayed proceedings are the norm and not the exception. These courts are part of a complex ecosystem that requires multiple actors (state governments, investigating authorities, forensic Science Laboratories, Special Public Prosecutors, etc) to work together to ensure that the system works efficiently.

According to data recorded in a Supreme Court order in 2020, it takes more than six months to complete investigation in over a third of Pocso cases. Delays in receiving reports from Forensic Science Laboratories can also increase the length of trials.

Addressing delays: Some ideas

Exclusive Pocso courts with adequate infrastructure and trained human resources is the bare minimum that the system needs to function. The adoption of technology for virtual hearings to record evidence of expert witnesses, like government doctors, and electronic submission of forensic reports can go a long way in reducing time spent during the evidence stage, which consumes over 40% of the time in a Pocso trial.

Special procedures to expedite cases, including changes in case management and listing practices, based on national and international best practices, should be incorporated within the text of the law.

The need of the hour is to create greater capacity within the system and strengthen existing institutions through integrated training programmes. A myopic understanding of the child protection system where courts are considered the only actors responsible for delay does not further the goal of fast-track justice for children.

Though Pocso courts are far from perfect, pinning the blame for delayed disposals on courts alone would be missing the forest for the trees. Unless there is systemic reform in the criminal justice system, meeting the mandated one-year timeline will remain a mere pipe dream.

Jyotika Randhawa and Apoorva are Research Fellows with the Justice, Access and Lowering Delays in India Initiative at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.