A new study of special courts set up under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act in Assam has added weight to the popular perception that in sexual offence cases conviction rates are low, victims turn hostile and trials are delayed.

Put together by the Centre for Child and the Law of the National Law School in Bengaluru, the report, released on Wednesday, looks at 172 judgements that were passed in Assam over a three-and-a-half-year period ending August 2016. The research team also conducted 32 interviews with prosecutors, judges, victims and others. The report painted a bleak picture of the implementation of the special law introduced in 2012 for the protection of children.

The report found that the conviction rate under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act was 24.4% in Assam over the period examined, with victims turning hostile in 32% of the cases before the special courts.

“Respondents stated that delay in completion of trial contributed to victims turning hostile and stressed on the need to ensure speedy trials,” said the report.

The Centre for Child and the Law has previously studied the implementation of this Act in Delhi.

‘Minimise time gap’

The study found that children were less likely to turn hostile when their statement was recorded within six months of the crime being registered. The percentage of children turning hostile increased to 40.42% in cases where it took six months to a year to record the evidence, and touched 48.78% when it took between one and two years from the date of the FIR.

“It is crucial that this time gap be minimised so that not only can the child victim testify when the events are fresh in her mind, but also so that she/he can heal and journey ahead instead of having to recall traumatic events after a prolonged period of time,” said the report.

Children turned hostile in various ways: saying that the offence hadn’t occurred, that the accused hadn’t committed the offence or that they were not children at the time.

For instance, in one case, a girl said she had merely been slapped and not assaulted by the accused. In another, a victim said her father used to misbehave at home, but said nothing about sexual abuse. In yet another case, a victim said the person who had impregnated her was not the person who was the accused.

As is common in such cases, the accused was known to the victim in 78% of the cases.

In cases referred to as “romantic cases” where the two were in a consensual relationship, 25 out of the 27 accused persons were acquitted. Though consent given by a person below the age of 18 does not count as consent legally, the courts tended to deal with such cases using their discretion.

Though some respondents felt that in such situations, treating the girl as the victim and the man as the accused was unfair, they said there were other things to consider.

“Factors such as grooming, age gap between the victim and the accused, age of the victim, or an offer of marriage to evade punishment, are rarely considered while acquitting the accused,” said the report.

Local peculiarities

While some of the findings of the Assam study reconfirm some long-held beliefs, they also shed light on specific situations peculiar to the region. For instance, those living in the tea growing regions in Dibrugarh district of Assam were especially reluctant to take offences to the police.

“From our interviews in Dibrugarh, which is the tea estate area, we found that because of the nature of living in a commune, families don’t want to file complaints,” said Swagata Raha, a legal consultant with Centre for Child and the Law, who led the study. “We found this hesitation more pronounced here.”

Instead, the report noted, people often approached the village head or tea estate manager before approaching the police. “These complaints have been filed only if the settlement was not amicable,” it said. “It emerged during the interview, that families are pressurised to compromise. In cases where the girl is pregnant, the families inevitably compromise and get her married to the perpetrator.”

For instance, in one case cited, the family waited for the promise of marriage, and when that wasn’t given, only then did they file the FIR.

Over the three-and-a-half-year period studied in Assam, 172 cases were decided in courts in 24 districts. This figure is considerably lower than the 667 judgements from Delhi courts that the Centre for Child and the Law had studied previously. The Delhi study looked at cases over two years and nine months starting January 2013.

“Perhaps fewer cases went to court because the police have been slow in applying the Act [in Assam],” said Raha. “As a result fewer cases have then gone to court.”

Although the conviction rate in Assam (24.4%) was higher than in Delhi (16.8%), it is unclear how much can be read into this.

“We couldn’t explain why a lower percentage turned hostile in Assam compared to Delhi,” said Raha. “Perhaps because there might have been a compromise between victim and accused before even coming to court.”

She emphasised that there was still “a long way to go” in Assam.

The report itself recommended a slew of measures that need to be taken, including periodic training for judicial officers, greater attention towards compensation for victims and facilitation of community level support groups, among other things.

The Centre for Child and the Law is also in the process of concluding a similar study of judgements related to the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act in Karnataka.