The rights of victims of crime is a subject that has, unfortunately, only drawn sporadic attention of Parliament, the judiciary and civil society. Yet, it has made great progress over the years. It is our evolving and developing jurisprudence that has made this possible. But we still have a long way to go to bring the rights of victims of crime to the centre stage and to recognise them as human rights and an important component of social justice and the rule of law.
The travails and tribulations of victims of crime begin with the trauma of the crime itself and, unfortunately, continue with the difficulties they face in something as simple as the registration of a First Information Report (FIR). The difficulties in registering an FIR have been noticed by a Constitution Bench of this Court in Lalita Kumari v. Government of Uttar Pradesh.1 The ordeal continues, quite frequently, in the investigation that may not necessarily be unbiased, particularly in respect of crimes against women and children. Access to justice in terms of affordability, effective legal aid and advice as well as adequate and equal representation are also problems that the victim has to contend with and which impact on society, the rule of law and justice delivery.
What follows in a trial is often secondary victimisation through repeated appearances in Court in a hostile or a semi-hostile environment in the courtroom. Till sometime back, secondary victimisation was in the form of aggressive and intimidating cross-examination, but a more humane interpretation of the provisions of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 has made the trial a little less uncomfortable for the victim of an offence, particularly the victim of a sexual crime. In this regard, the judiciary has been proactive in ensuring that the rights of victims are addressed, but a lot more needs to be done. Today, the rights of an accused far outweigh the rights of the victim of an offence in many respects. There needs to be some balancing of the concerns and equalising their rights so that the criminal proceedings are fair to both.2 The Courts have provided solace to the victim with monetary compensation, but that is not enough.3 There are victim compensation schemes in force due to the mandate of Section 357A of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 (the Cr.P.C.) but even that is not enough, though they are being implemented in several parts of the country. We are of the view that the judiciary is obliged to go and has gone beyond merely awarding compensation and has taken into consideration the larger picture from the perspective of the victim of an offence, relating to infrastructure in court buildings and has recommended and implemented some recommendations such as the construction of child friendly courts and courts that address the concerns of vulnerable witnesses.4 The Courts have done and are continuing to do their best for the victims of crime.
In Sakshi v. Union of India5 this Court passed significant directions for holding in camera proceedings, providing for a screen between the accused and the victim and placed restrictions, in a sense, on the cross examination of witnesses. It is true that these directions have been passed in a case relating to sexual offences but the trend of this Court has been to show concern for the rights of victims of an offence and to address them.
Parliament also has been proactive in recognising the rights of victims of an offence. One such recognition is through the provisions of Chapter XXIA of the Cr.P.C. which deals with plea bargaining. Parliament has recognised the rights of a victim to participate in a mutually satisfactory disposition of the case. This is a great leap forward in the recognition of the right of a victim to participate in the proceedings of a non-compoundable case. Similarly, Parliament has amended the Cr.P.C. introducing the right of appeal to the victim of an offence, in certain circumstances. The present appeals deal with this right incorporated in the proviso to Section 372 of the Cr.P.C.
In other words, a considerable amount has been achieved in giving life to the rights of victims of crime, despite the absence of a cohesive policy. But, as mentioned above, a lot more still needs to be done.
Among the steps that need to be taken to provide meaningful rights to the victims of an offence, it is necessary to seriously consider giving a hearing to the victim while awarding the sentence to a convict. A victim impact statement or a victim impact assessment must be given due recognition so that an appropriate punishment is awarded to the convict. In addition, the need for psycho-social support and counselling to a victim may also become necessary, depending upon the nature of the offence. It is possible that in a given case the husband of a young married woman gets killed in a fight or a violent dispute. How is the young widow expected to look after herself in such circumstances, which could be even more traumatic if she had a young child? It is true that a victim impact statement or assessment might result in an appropriate sentence being awarded to the convict, but that would not necessarily result in ‘justice’ to the young widow – perhaps rehabilitation is more important to her than merely ensuring that the criminal is awarded a life sentence. There is now a need, therefore, to discuss these issues in the context of social justice and take them forward in the direction suggested by some significant Reports that we have had occasion to look into and the direction given by Parliament and judicial pronouncements.
The rights of victims, and indeed victimology, is an evolving jurisprudence and it is more than appropriate to move forward in a positive direction, rather than stand still or worse, take a step backward. A voice has been given to victims of crime by Parliament and the judiciary and that voice needs to be heard, and if not already heard, it needs to be raised to a higher decibel so that it is clearly heard.