The Senate Standing Committee on Law and Justice has given the go-ahead to a law that would form special courts and expedite the time required to hear rape cases. This will allow the Anti-Rape (Investigation and Trail) Bill, 2021 to be presented for a full Senate vote. The National Assembly had approved the bill in June. In its present form, the bill establishes special courts and sets a four-month timeframe for cases to be decided.
While support for the expedited timeframe was near-unanimous, treasury and opposition members were split over the formation of special courts. Opposition leaders believe that special courts are unnecessary as the existing courts can handle rape cases while being further empowered through the other provisions of the bill. On the other hand, Committee Chairman Ali Zafar insists that removing the special courts provision would effectively kill the bill. However, that feels like an exaggeration. Doing away with special courts would still allow the rest of the bill to be passed into law — pending approval of the new bill by the National Assembly.
Meanwhile, whatever the bill’s final language, it still does not address a major failing in the legal system — judges’ qualifications to handle cases relating to sexual assault and crimes against children. The bill imposes penalties on investigation officials if they are found to be negligent or try to mislead case proceedings and also ends legal requirements for virginity tests, but it does not ensure that specialised judges will lead the special courts. This could be problematic for victims, offenders, and innocent suspects alike. Meanwhile, special courts invariably involve additional costs, which could instead have been invested in training judges at all levels to handle crimes against women better.
Simply put, expediting cases and special courts do not guarantee justice, but failure to ensure judges are sensitised guarantees that victims will be forced to unnecessarily relieve their physical and emotional trauma.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 3rd, 2021.
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