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Written By: Shreya Pahwa
Attention has been drawn to issues that have been on the back-burner for too long — the dearth of judges, a large number of cases and the perils of an overburdened criminal justice system. Proof enough that more resources and reforms are needed. But a crucial perspective that found only a cursory mention was the impact this has on prisoners awaiting trial, and the years they lose in jail engaging with a sluggish justice system. In many cases, trials had either not begun or had been delayed because jail authorities had not received a ‘committal warrant’ identifying the court and date of hearing. The criminal justice system is supposed to ascertain whether an accused person is guilty of a crime through a trial within a reasonable time. Police and prison officials often fail to fulfill their roles, leading to long delays in trials. Often, however, judicial oversight of detention — which is essential to protect against unlawful or excessive detention — is also lacking.
Section 167 of India’s Code of Criminal Procedures empowers judges to extend a detainee’s custody, but only for a period of 15 days at a time, and only when the accused is produced before the judge. The core idea behind this provision is to ensure strict and regular judicial oversight to safeguard the rights of detainees.
According to Amnesty International’s 2017 report, ‘Justice under Trial: A Study of Pre-Trial Detention in India, 29% of under-trials are not formally literate and 42% have not completed secondary education. Thus, for a significant proportion of the under-trial population, quality legal aid in the form of legal counseling and representation is imperative, to ensure that they are aware of their basic rights under the law and have a chance at a fair trial. Unfortunately more often than not, under-trials, particularly those from weak socio-economic backgrounds, are unaware of the state provisions that can help them. Article 39A of the Indian Constitution reads, “The state shall, in particular, provide free legal aid to ensure that opportunities for securing justice are not denied to any citizen by reason of economic or other disabilities.” In theory, this constitutional provision ensures that even the most disadvantaged of under-trials is allotted a lawyer, who can file for bail and advise him/her on the optimal legal strategy for the case.
For the past ten years, the percentage of under-trials compared to the total number of prisoners in Indian jails has almost consistently been over 65 percent. This is a frightening statistic, with our numbers only marginally better than other countries. A breakdown of the individuals that make up this astonishing figure is even more worrisome and warrants examination. It cannot be ignored that the same Amnesty International report states that of the total number of undertrials in India, 53 percent are Dalits, Muslims or Adivasis. This is a staggering figure considering that these communities only make up 39 percent of India’s total population. Cold statistics, though revealing, have a tendency to dehumanize the suffering that each of these individuals goes through for years on end.
Numbers don’t lie and there seems to be overwhelming evidence that people from certain communities and from poorer backgrounds tend to be on the receiving end of the inefficiencies of our judicial system.
Edited By: Rachit Mehrotra