The Supreme Court on Friday observed that atrocities against members of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes communities are not a thing of the past and that the provisions enacted to protect their constitutional rights must be “enforced conscientiously”, reported PTI.

A bench of Justices DY Chandrachud and BV Nagarathna made the observation while setting aside bail granted by the Rajasthan High Court to a man accused of murder. The man was also charged under provisions of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

The petitioner, the victim in the case, had contended in his plea against the High Court bail order that he was not served a notice under Section 15A of the SC/ST Act as he was entitled under the law, reported Live Law.

To this, the Supreme Court observed that it was mandatory to serve the notice under Section 15A of the Act to the victim or their dependents.

Section 15A of the Act deals with the rights of victims and witnesses. Its sub-sections (3) and (5) make the victim or their dependents an active stakeholder in any criminal proceedings.

Sub-section (3) says that a victim or his dependent shall have the right to reasonable, accurate, and timely notice of any court proceeding, including any bail proceeding under the Act. Sub-section (5) states that a victim or his dependent shall be entitled to be heard at any proceeding under the law in respect of bail, discharge, release, parole, conviction or sentence of an accused.

The court said that the victim’s right to notice and to be heard were violated.

“There has been a clear infraction of the mandate of the statute,” the bench said. “Sub-sections (3) and (5) have been introduced by the Parliament to ensure a right to be heard to the person against whom the offence is committed or to the dependents. These provisions must be scrupulously observed.”

The Supreme Court also disagreed with the High Court’s decision to grant bail.

“We cannot agree with the finding of the single judge that the defect in not issuing notice to the victim or their dependent and depriving them of the opportunity to be heard in the concerned proceedings [for grant of bail] can be cured by providing them a hearing in a proceeding that arose subsequently [for cancellation of bail],” the bench said.

The court said that investigations in the country are exclusively conducted by the police and the victims often face hurdles in the inquiry and prosecution.

“Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes specifically suffer on account of procedural lapses in the criminal justice system,” the bench said. “They face insurmountable hurdles in accessing justice from the stage of filing the complaint to the conclusion of the trial.”

It said that many victims do not file complaints due to fear of retribution from members of upper caste groups, ignorance, or police apathy. The bench said that even if they muster the courage to approach the police, officials are often reluctant to register complaints or do not record allegations accurately.

“Eventually, if the case does get registered, the victims and witnesses are vulnerable to intimidation, violence, and social and economic boycott,” the court said, according to the Hindustan Times. “Further, many perpetrators of caste-based atrocities get away scot free due to shoddy investigations and the negligence of prosecuting advocates.”

The bench added: “This results in low conviction rates under the SC/ST Act, giving rise to the erroneous perception that cases registered under the Act are false and that it is being misused. On the contrary, the reality is that many acquittals are a result of improper investigation and prosecution of crime, leading to insufficient evidence.”