In December 2017, the special court appointed to hear the 2-G Spectrum cases delivered a verdict - each of the defendants was acquitted. Not because of some arcane technicality, but because the court examined the evidence, and at the end of a nearly 1600 page long decision said that where the world was being asked to see a huge scandal, there was none. Little has been said about the verdicts: I doubt many people except criminal lawyers are ever going to actually finish 1600 pages, and then, the entire episode seems like it happened so long ago making it not very newsworthy. In the few days immediately after the verdict though some websites were carrying excerpts out of the decision which contained a stinging rebuke to the manner in which the prosecution was conducted (I am referring to paragraphs 1810-1812 for those interested). The court lamented the disjointed stand put up by those in the government's corner; the Special Public Prosecutor appointed by the Supreme Court, the Senior Public Prosecutor who normally works in court, and the CBI Inspector who had handled the case.
This raises an important question, albeit indirectly: how do the prosecutors and investigators work together in the Indian criminal justice system and whether this is the best way to run things? Speaking to those outside the court system, I found it interesting that not many people knew how things worked to begin with, which gave this post some purpose.
Prosecutors and investigators do not normally work together. Investigations are usually entirely in the hands of the police and once a chargesheet is filed in court, the prosecutor comes in the picture and functions as the voice of the government's case. The police takes a backseat and moves on to the next case while the prosecutor takes charge, and the investigating police officer comes whenever possible to give help. Who are these prosecutors? They have been described as a' limb of the judicial process' and are appointed by government either from a cadre of officers (like most of Indian bureaucracies) or in consultation with the local judiciary, with different states having their own rules for selection etc. Most of this procedure came in with the 2006 amendments to the Cr.P.C. Since the average lifespan of most criminal cases is beyond two years, it is rare for prosecutors to continue with the case from start to finish because administrative transfers happen much more frequently. For instance, while I am personally unaware of the 2-G scam cases, I do know that the prosecutor changed in the ongoing Commonwealth Games cases. This means they have relatively little skin in the game. If we are thinking about comparative examples then Indian prosecutors would seem much closer to prosecutors in civil law systems as against those in common law countries. And extremely far from American prosecutors: to call them apples and oranges would be understating the differences.
Was this strict separation between police and prosecutor always the case? No. In fact, at the time of independence, prosecutors fell under the control of the police rather than the local government or judiciary. While I am unaware of qualitative contributions made by prosecutors during investigations, it is likely that there was still greater synergy in how cases were investigated and prosecuted. But the problems seem to have outweighed the benefits. The Law Commission since the 14th Report onwards is considered to have consistently argued that the police and prosecutor should be separate, and the current legal regime reflects how the Law Commission's ideas have been accepted by successive governments (I say considered, because there is some variance between what the 14th Report says and what the 197th Report thinks it says). Has this helped the Indian criminal process? I would argue that it hasn't and, in fact, is bad for the system. Time and again we get high-profile examples like the 2-G scam which show us that if the police had a keener eye for what might be evidence in a case then the outcome might have been different. Or if the prosecutor knew the facts then she could have presented them better. But we don't need high-profile examples like the 2-G scam to tell us that the system is messed up: the data is right there. Since the 1990s, the police have been filing cases far more regularly than the system can handle them. This reflects that the incentives of police do not include what happens to cases once they reach court. Should that be so? Not at all. Enough studies have shown that if persons know their cases will languish in courts for years, the deterrent effect of sending anyone to prison takes a bit hit. So, one of the key goals of having criminal prosecutions gets defeated.
Indian politicians bemoan low conviction rates (hovering around 50% for IPC offences), and cases like the Arushi murder trial help whipping up sentiment against the supposedly primitive ways of the police. But as the numbers show, blame should also be apportioned to how cases are prosecuted in courts. Prosecutors in the district courts often function on extremely meagre resources, having no office but only a space reserved inside the courtroom they are appointed to serve, and ordinarily handle a complex docket that has upwards of thirty matters, consisting of bail hearings, arguments for arraignments, recording evidence, and final arguments on guilt or innocence. They are often not paid on time as well. The previous lines are describing New Delhi, the capital, so one can only imagine the situation in non-metro cities. Where prosecutors are able to compete effectively in cases where clients cannot afford to put up a good case, the mismatch in cases like the 2-G scam becomes painful to watch. While those defendants may win, there are still casualties in the system, because then we find judges try and make up the handicap by diluting the presumption of innocence and ask defendants to do more than they need to for establishing reasonable doubt. Or they want more from the defence lawyers simply because they get used to the low standards of contribution from prosecutors because of the systemic problems I described. Whatever be the case, the process suffers.
For years India has been gaining infamy for a tediously slow judicial system. If anything, data suggests that things won't change by simply having more judges and more courts as we might be led to believe. This is a complex problem, and has many parts that need to be addressed. Reforming how we prosecute crime needs to become one of these parts, and urgently.
(This post was amended on January 28, 2018 to correct references to the 14th Report of the LCI)