Twelve exclusive special courts, set up in 11 states, are scheduled to start hearing criminal cases against 1,581 parliamentarians and lawmakers of different states from 1 March. The fast-track hearing is expected to be completed by March next year, days ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, and political analysts feel that many prominent politicians may be barred from contesting the polls, courtesy last minute possible convictions.

The special courts were set up by the Union government in Delhi-NCR (two courts), Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, following a direction to this effect from the Supreme Court last year. The SC issued the direction while hearing a PIL filed by apex court lawyer and BJP functionary Ashwini Upadhyay, who had sought that convicted politicians should be barred for life from contesting elections. As per the data available in 2014, as many as 13,500 cases were pending for prosecution against 1,581 sitting MPs and MLAs of the time.In states where there are more than 65 cases pending against politicians, special courts are being set up, whereas in states where the number is fewer than 65, the cases are being transferred to existing, normal fast-track courts. The SC expects the special courts to deliver verdicts in at least 100 cases a year.

The government of India, which was the main respondent in the PIL filed by Ashwini Upadhyay, had expressed its willingness to set up special courts for criminal cases involving MPs and MLAs. The government said that it had proposed to set up 12 fast-track courts for an expeditious disposal of such cases. These fast-track courts will take up cases from all states and function under the jurisdiction of one special court. The government further stated that it had allotted Rs 7.80 crore for the setting up of such courts and an in-principle approval had also been received from the Ministry of Finance.

The Supreme Court will again hear the PIL on 7 March. By then, the 12 special courts are expected to become functional.

As per the records in 2014, criminal cases against 228 MPs (184 Lok Sabha members and 44 Rajya Sabha members) were pending. All these cases will be heard in Delhi. As many as 1,353 MLAs in various states were facing criminal charges—the maximum number was from Maharashtra (160), followed by Uttar Pradesh (143) and Bihar (141).

The Supreme Court’s directive has invited questioning from the leaders of the Opposition parties. Naresh Agrawal of the Samajwadi Party, in a discussion in the Parliament last year, questioned the government’s motive in filing an affidavit in favour of setting up of fast-track courts. He said such a move will create a misleading perception about the politicians, given the fact that there were no special courts to fast-track the trial of terrorists and dreaded criminals. Anand Sharma of the Congress said the government’s move will lead to an excessive vilification of the lawmakers, as it would cement perception that the elected representatives of the people were the most corrupt of the lot.Ashwini Upadhyay, who had filed the PIL in 2016, said that at least 150 such courts are needed for expeditious disposal of the pending cases. “This is the first step; more courts will be needed to complete hearing in the huge number of cases,” he told The Sunday Guardian.

Vikas Upadhyay, a Supreme Court lawyer, said that these cases could be tried in a time-bound manner, without the need of special courts, by making an amendment in the CrPC. “The law does provide for certain category of cases to be tried in a time-bound manner. All that was needed was an amendment in the CrPC, making it mandatory that the trial of a particular nature of cases against a category of people must be completed within a particular time frame. The important thing is to show results. In spite of an existing law that says that a maximum period of six months should be taken, as prescribed in Section 86 (7) of the RPA, for the trial of an election petition, we have rarely seen an election petition being decided in the said time frame,” Upadhyay told The Sunday Guardian.

‌Diljeet Titus of Titus and company said that these 12 fast track courts will not have any proper mechanism, as existing courts will be merely re-designated as fast track courts. “Under the Indian Constitutional scheme of courts, courts cannot be set up by the orders of another court or by an executive action unless there is a Parliamentary enactment allowing the constitution of such courts. While fast track courts have been somewhat effective in reducing the number of pending cases, questions will be raised on the quality of justice meted out by these courts. A substantial number of such judgements had been overturned in the past on appeal. Given the impracticable deadlines these courts have to follow, they often end up compromising on due procedure and evidence. The Centre’s suggestion that the pending cases against 1,581 politicians can be disposed off within a year through 12 fast track courts seems idealistic. With an allocated budget of Rs 7.80 crore, what needs to be ensured is a proper mechanism and a vigilant utilisation of resources to make this a functional reality,” Titus told The Sunday Guardian.

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