A road map to deliver justice to child survivors | Opinion – analysis
Justice delayed is justice denied. Pendency of Protection of Children against Sexual Offences Act, 2012, (Pocso), cases is causing tremendous harm to child survivors who are seeking timely justice across India. The Act stipulates that a case of child sexual abuse must be disposed-off within a year from the date the offence is reported. However, there are 160,989 cases of Pocso Act pending trial in courts across the country. Timely availability of data (age- and gender-based segregation) is also a big concern at the state, district and town level. In September 2019, the law ministry proposed a scheme to have fast track special courts (FTSC) for the expeditious disposal of cases of rape and Pocso Act. There are 389 districts in the country in which the number of pending cases under the Pocso Act exceeds 100.
The Out of Shadow Index, a benchmarking index developed by the Economist Intelligence Unit, examines how stakeholders in 40 countries are responding to the threat of child sexual abuse and exploitation. India ranks 15th on this index, with a score of 57.6 out of 100. The key indicators important for criminal justice delivery process on which India scores 50 or less includes access to victim support programmes, complaint mechanism, civil society engagement, protecting child interests, child-specific rape laws, contextual legal framework, national plans and policies, government and law enforcement capacity and social protection. This research also specifically recommend strengthening participation by and support from non-governmental groups.
Since the inception of the Pocso Act, there has been an increase in reporting of child sexual abuse cases. On the other hand, there have been concerns raised about the criminal justice delivery mechanism, quality of investigation, availability of support person, medical investigation, legal aid, compensation to victims, and transparency in preparation of record by forensics science laboratory.
According to the recent report on Pocso by the registrar of the Supreme Court, there are 36% of cases where time taken for completion of investigation is more than six months (in 20% cases, it is more than a year). In 49% of the cases, it took more than a month for the police to deposit samples with forensics laboratories. Inexcusably, there are 96% cases without a support person, and 99% cases in which interim and final compensation is not provided. Moreover, two-thirds of the cases are pending trial for more than a year.
Child survivors are already traumatised and subjected to secondary victimisation due to the existing faulty justice delivery mechanism. Handling the cases of child survivors by non-specialised or inexperienced key stakeholders and institutions — such as investigation officer, medical officer, support person (Child Welfare Committee), counsellor/psychologist/mental health expert (District Child Protection Unit), Juvenile Justice Board, Legal Aid Counsel (DLSA) and Special Public Prosecutor — makes this process cumbersome and painful for child survivors and their families. This often results into frequent adjournment of children’s testimony, delay in disposal of cases, or survivors turning hostile.
Considering the existing status of Pocso cases, it is necessary to bring improvement in delivering justice to survivors in a child-friendly manner, and within the stipulated time. It can be achieved by building capacities of the key stakeholders and institutions as provisioned under the Pocso Act 2012. Therefore, it is essential for the concerned authorities to invest collectively in creating a cadre of district- and state-level professionals, covering the aforementioned key stakeholders for expediting the justice delivery process in a sensitive manner.
The selection and performance appraisal processes for these professional stakeholders must be scrutinised and reviewed periodically to ensure accountability, transparency and effectiveness of service delivery. These key stakeholders have to be acquainted with good practices through their peers who have achieved results in such cases. They should be exposed to stress management techniques and related trainings for their healthy work-life balance. A child sensitive lens in their day-to-day working will build trust with the survivors and their families, and may also help reduce their trauma. The stakeholders’ orientation, experience, knowledge and skills in accordance to the mandated guidelines as well as the child-friendly interventions during the pre-trial and trial process make the system robust and helps in speedy trial and reduction of pendency of cases.
The concerned government authorities, along with child-friendly FTSC, should leverage appropriate technology for tracking the cases in real time. The concerned departments should pool in resources to focus on developing a cadre of professionals to support child survivors. They may allow interns or junior officers to accompany or support key stakeholders during the investigation and trial process. They should engage with local non-governmental organisations and leverage social media to create awareness among masses about Pocso Act. A professional, skilful and passionate human resource is the need of the hour. It will strengthen the judicial process, and help child survivors seek justice in a child-friendly manner.
Prabhat Kumar is head, child protection, and Manish Thakre is head, Urban programme and policy at Save the Children
The views expressed are personal