Thursday, May 3, 2018

The NCRB Data and Delays in the Criminal Process

The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) Crime in India publications have been around since 1953, providing us with statistical information about various aspects of (as the name suggests) crime in India. Today we might have other sources coming up, the NCRB data is an exclusive source for earlier decades. This makes it an invaluable site of research, and an amazing way to kill time without feeling guilty about procrastination.

Before going further, I must strike the obligatory note of caution that any causation arguments on NCRB data require. The NCRB data is notorious for being misrepresentative. So it might well be that the gaps between pending and completed trials were massive even before 1961, and that better data collection over the years meant that the NCRB finally came around to painting a more accurate picture of what's happening on the ground.

Taking this pinch of salt, we can talk about what the data perhaps points to. I noticed some interesting statistical points relating to ratio of pending criminal trials to those that are completed in a year for offences under the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (IPC). There are separate figures for cases under special and local laws which I do not discuss. Also note, that this is data for trials, not appeals or revision petitions on points of law. The numbers in the table below are given as approximations, sourced from the 2012 Crime in India Report (Figure 4.2):

1961: Completed Trials: 2.5 Lakhs. Pending Trials: 8 Lakhs.
1971: Completed Trials: 3 Lakhs. Pending Trials: 9.5 Lakhs.
1981: Completed Trials: 5 Lakhs. Pending Trials: 21 Lakhs.
1991: Completed Trials: 6.5 Lakhs. Pending Trials: 39.5 Lakhs.
2001: Completed Trials: 9 Lakhs. Pending Trials: 62 Lakhs.
2011: Completed Trials: 12 Lakhs. Pending Trials: 89 Lakhs.

This is, frankly, astonishing. Between 1961 and 2011, the total number of completed trials saw a 380% increase. As against this, the total number of pending trials in that same period saw a near 1000% increase. So from the gap being just about 5.5 lakh trials in 1961, by 2011, it was over 70 lakh trials by 2011. The decade between 1991 and 2001 is the most remarkable in some aspects. The completed trials numbers registered a 38% increase. But the number of pending cases increased by around 57% (the only time that this happened during that fifty-year period). The most recent figures from the 2016 Report don't have the same tables. But the 2015 Report did, and completed trials were approx. 13 lakhs while completed ones were over 1 crore.

It is clear, then, that the rate at which the pending trials have been rising continues to greatly outstrip the rate at which cases are disposed. As against this, how have the police fared during the fifty-year period? Data from 1962 is not available (the report speaks of appendices at page 23 which aren't currently hosted online), but we have data for 1972-2012 on investigations completed by police. For 1972, police boasted an 82% completion rate for IPC offences. This was 81% for 1982, 78% for 1992, 79% for 2002, and 74% for 2012 (again, figures are rounded-off to the nearest whole number). 

Not every completed investigation brings a trial, but several do, and I think this shows the first reason behind the inflating rate of pendency in our trial courts. While courts kept taking longer to finish trials, the police relentlessly finished investigations and filed new cases. This efficiency of one arm of the justice system (police) worsened the problems with the other (judiciary). And this makes sense. Police and courts are rather insulated from each other despite being parts of the same setup. Police officers finish one investigation and move on to the next, considering their job done with the filing of a charge-sheet. They have minimal skin in the game when it comes to the trial itself, and so they have no reason to stop filing their charge-sheets even if they knew that disposal rates are very low.

Looking at the data to discuss delays offers a better way to think about solutions. For instance, now we can safely assert that one reason for the courts becoming slower in disposing cases is that they just kept getting more cases to deal with. One way to deal with this is to increase the number of judges, and it is an issue often thrown up in the public discourse. But why don't we talk about the police, and whether they should be filing so many cases? We do talk about the police filing dubious cases in court - the Delhi High Court recently passed an order asking all cases to be reviewed by the legal section first. But this is casting doubt on merits. Rarely in India do we talk about another aspect: are all cases equally important and merit a criminal sanction? A criminal conviction is serious business, and as we know, engages scarce judicial resources. So should a review stage also look at whether a case really warrants a criminal sanction? Besides better use of resources, it could also help drive up conviction rates, and re-assert the potency of a criminal sanction which is arguably lost in India when conviction rates hover around 50% and it takes years to get a conviction in the first place.

Could there be any other reason why courts became slower with IPC cases? I suspect that the initial bump between 1971 and 1981 might have been caused by introduction of a new Criminal Procedure Code in 1973. It takes time to adapt to new procedures, even if the changes were minimal, and it is safe to argue that this would have contributed to delays. Besides this, the period is known to be a time where public services were not up to the mark (serving a justification for Mrs. Gandhi's Emergency).

But what about the decade between 1991 and 2001? I'm at a total loss on what might explain such a big jump in pendency rates during this period. There is no marked increase in the rate at which police investigations were being completed. My cursory reading of the reports did not show any specific offence being prosecuted a lot more, or of there being a new offence that came on the books. Maybe understanding what caused these changes could also help in stemming the tide for the future? 

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