Special courts

From Justice Definitions Project

What is a Special Court?

Special courts are a specific type of courts that have limited jurisdiction, defined with reference to the subject-matter of the cases they take up (that is, they are authorized to handle only certain types of cases, rather than being limited by a specific geographic area).

They are generally introduced by lawmakers to address the problem of high pendency, so as to expedite the resolution of specific case categories. In some categories, such Courts also provide the necessary infrastructure required by certain laws (e.g., the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012).

These Courts were initially governed by the Special Courts Act, 1979, which has since been repealed.[1] The establishment and functioning of Special Courts is now governed by the Statute which created it.

Official Definition of Special Courts

There is no single unified legislation that governs the establishment of special courts. Instead, their establishment is regulated by different state and central laws depending on the specific purpose for which they are established. As a result, there is no clear and dedicated official definition for special courts.

A study on special courts in legislation between 1950 and 2015 found that laws often use the terms 'set up' or 'designate' interchangeably, even though they have different meanings.[2] 'Setting up' a court involves creating a new court with infrastructure and personnel, while 'designating' a court means allocating additional case categories to a judge who still handles their regular workload. Furthermore, various statutes use terms like 'constitute,' 'create,' 'notify,' and 'appoint' without clear definitions, leading to more ambiguities and implementation challenges.

Types of Special Courts

Special Courts have been established under multiple central and state laws. A few have been discussed in this section.

Special Courts for MP/MLAs

The Union Government facilitated the setting up of 12 Special Courts as directed by the Supreme Court of India vide its Orders dated 01.11.2017[3] and 14.12.2017,[4] in states which had 65 and above pending cases, for expeditious trial of criminal cases involving MP/MLAs. 10 Special Courts are presently functional in 9 states Special courts of Bihar and Kerala were discontinued as per the directions of the apex court.[5]

Fast Track Special Courts

Pursuant to the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2018,[6] to address sexual offences and lengthy trials, the Department of Justice established 1023 Fast Track Special Courts (FTSCs) nationwide in 2019, including 389 exclusive POCSO Courts. The Department has implemented an online monitoring framework for monthly case statistics and conducts regular review meetings with High Court Registrar Generals and state officials to ensure effective implementation of the scheme.[7]

This scheme, initially for one year, has been extended until March 2023 with a budget of Rs. 1572.86 Cr., including Rs. 971.70 Cr. as the Central Share. Currently, 764 FTSCs, including 411 exclusive POCSO Courts, are operational in 28 States/UTs, with over 1,44,000 cases disposed of and 1,98,563 pending as of January 2023. 28 States/UTs have joined the scheme, while three are yet to participate.

Rs. 633.7 Cr. has been released to the States/UTs since the scheme's inception. A third-party evaluation by the Indian Institute of Public Administration recommends continuing the scheme due to its significant importance in ensuring the safety of women and children.[8]

Special Courts under The Companies Act

These courts, established under Section 435 of the Companies act[9] have jurisdiction over a wide range of offences specified in the legislation. The special court shall consist of a single judge holding office as Session Judge or Additional Session Judge for offence providing for imprisonment of two years or more and a Metropolitan Magistrate or a Judicial Magistrate of the First Class, in any other case who shall be appointed by the Central Government with the concurrence of the Chief Justice of the High Court within whose jurisdiction the judge to be appointed is working.[10] The creation of these courts has been a pivotal moment for the judiciary, particularly in relieving the heavy caseload associated with company disputes. Appeals from these courts can be heard by the respective High Courts.

Special Courts under The POCSO Act

Section 28 of the act allows for the establishment of special courts to ensure swift trials for cases involving sexual offences against children under 18 years of age. It provides for establishing exclusive or designated courts in each district of the country, if there are more than 100 cases under the POCSO Act.[11] These courts, funded by the Central Government, comprise a presiding officer, support personnel, special prosecutors, and court staff. The responsibility for implementing the POCSO Act primarily lies with the state governments. If a Court of Session is already designated as a children's court or a special court for similar purposes under another law, it will be considered a special court under this section.

In 2019, the Supreme Court took up the issue of “completion of timely investigations and consequential trials in the offences under the POCSO Act" and issued directions[12] and mandated that each state with over 300 pending cases under the POCSO Act[13] should have a minimum of 2 special courts.

As of April 30, 2019, a total of 664 special courts have been established nationwide to expedite the resolution of cases registered under the POCSO Act. The Ministry of Women and Child Development occasionally release information with respect to the special courts.[14]

NIA Special Courts

These courts, established under Section 11 of the National Investigation Agency Act, 2008,[15] handle cases related to various offences such as those under the Atomic Energy Act, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, the Anti-Hijacking Act, and the SAARC Convention (Suppression of Terrorism) Act. They primarily focus on terrorism cases, including terror funding, setting them apart from the CBI, which primarily investigates corruption, economic offences, and other serious crimes.

Section 12 empowers Special Courts to hold proceedings at a location other than their regular sitting place if they find it necessary, based on their initiative or upon the application of the Public Prosecutor.

Section 13 States that all Scheduled Offences investigated by the NIA must be tried only by the Special Court within the local jurisdiction where the offence was committed. It also allows the Supreme Court or High Court to transfer a case from one Special Court to another within the state or to a Special Court in another state under certain circumstances affecting a fair trial, safety, or interests of justice.

Section 14 grants Special Courts the authority to try related offence along with the main offence. If an accused is found to have committed another offence under the same Act or any other law during the trial, the Special Court can convict the person and impose appropriate punishment as authorized by the Act or other relevant laws.

Special Court for Securities

Under The Special Court (Trial of Offences Relating to Transactions Securities) Act, 1992[16] Special Courts for the trial of offences committed concerning Transactions in Securities Act, 1992. Reserve Bank of India found that large-scale irregularities and malpractices were found in Government and other securities through brokers in collaboration with Bank employees. This legislation was to meet this situation.[17]

Special Court under NDPS Act

Section 36A of the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985[18] contains a non-obstante clause in Section 36A which empowers the Special Court to hear cases punishable by imprisonment for more than three years. Besides the offences under the NDPS Act, the Special Court has also been empowered with the authority to try an accused who has also been accused of other criminal offences under the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 (CrPC).

Special Court under the SC-ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act

The Scheduled Castes and Schedules Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act 1989[19] requires states to set up Special Courts to adjudicate Scheduled Caste offences. crimes committed against SCs by non-SCs that are registered under the PCR and POA acts and are meant to be tried in special courts established by virtue of Section 14 which have been set up by state governments for the purpose of providing for speedy trials. They are set up almost in each district to try the offence under this Act.

Special Court under the PMLA

The Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA), 2002[20] envisages the designation of one or more courts of sessions as Special Court or Special Courts to try the offences punishable under PMLA and offences with which the accused may, under the Code of Criminal Procedure 1973, be charged at the same trial. These special courts also deal with fugitive economic offenders and provide for the confiscation of their properties both inside and outside India.

Special Court under The Prevention of Corruption Act

Chapter II of the Prevention of Corruption Act[21] lays down provisions for the appointment of special judges who would be trying cases under this act. As per section 3 of the act Central Government or the State Government can appoint special Judges to try offences punishable under this Act and also the conspiracy to commit any such offences.

The state government can establish special courts for trying offences under the Prevention of Corruption Act involving persons holding public office. For instance- In Rajasthan, under the Rajasthan Special Courts Act, 2012 Special Courts for the speedy trial of corruption cases and confiscation of property have been established, In Odisha by virtue of Orissa Special Court act, 2006,[22] Special courts have been set up in Madhya Pradesh, for the said purpose, under Madhya Pradesh Vishesh Nyayalaya Adhiniyam 2011.[23] Such courts have also been set up in Jharkhand and Chattisgarh under The Jharkhand Special Courts Act, 2016[24] and Chhattisgarh Special Courts Act[25] respectively.

Special Court under the Electricity Act

Section 153 of the Electricity Act[26] lays down the provision for the establishment of a special court by the State government for the purposes of providing speedy trial of offences referred to in sections 135 to 140 and section 150 of the said act. It consists of a single Judge who shall be appointed by the State Government with the concurrence of the High Court.

Special Courts under The Income Tax Act

Section 280A of the Income Tax Act[27] lays down the procedure for the designation of special courts to try offences committed under the respective Act. It states that the Central Government can designate one or more courts of Magistrate of the first class as Special Court  after consulting the Chief Justice of the High Court, may, for the trial of offences punishable under this Chapter, by notification.

Special Courts under Karnataka Land Grabbing Prohibition Act

Under section 7 of the Karnataka Land Grabbing Prohibition Act,[28] the Government of Karnataka is empowered to establish Special Courts to expedite the investigation and trial of alleged land grabbing cases and offences specified in Chapter XIV-A of the Karnataka Land Revenue Act, 1964. These courts are set up through official notifications. A Special Court consists of five members initially, with a Chairman and four other members appointed by the Government. If deemed necessary, the Government can establish Additional Benches of the Special Court through separate notifications for specific areas.

Special Court under The Gujarat Land Grabbing (Prohibition) Act

Under section 7 of The Gujarat Land Grabbing (Prohibition) Act[29] the State Government of Gujarat, with the concurrence of the Chief Justice of the High Court of Gujarat, has the authority to constitute one or more Special Courts through an official notification in the Official Gazette. These courts can be established for specific areas, cases, or class/group of cases as specified in the notification.

Special Courts under UP Dacoity Affected Areas Act

The Special Courts under the UP Dacoity Affected Areas Act, 1983,[30] were established to address the specific problem of dacoity (organized armed robbery) in certain areas of Uttar Pradesh, India. The Act aimed to provide for the speedy trials of offences related to dacoity and other connected crimes in designated dacoity-affected areas. Under Section 5 of the respective act, the state government can establish special courts with the concurrence of the Chief Justice of the High Court of Uttar Pradesh.

Special Courts under The Terrorist Affected areas (Special Court) Act

Under section 4 of the Terrorist Affected areas (Special Court) Act 1984[31] the State Government of Gujarat, with the concurrence of the Chief Justice of the High Court of Gujarat, has the authority to constitute one or more Special Courts through an official notification in the Official Gazette.

Special Court under The Disturbed areas (special courts) Act

Under section 4 of The Disturbed Areas (Special Courts) Act, 1976[32] The State Government has the authority to establish Special Courts through an official notification in the Official Gazette. These Special Courts are set up with the specific purpose of providing speedy trial of scheduled offences committed in disturbed areas. Each Special Court consists of a single judge, and the appointed judge must meet specific qualifications. The age of the judge's retirement from service is also a relevant factor in their eligibility for the position. These Special Courts are designed to address the unique challenges and security concerns in disturbed regions and ensure the prompt administration of justice for scheduled offences committed within those areas.

Special Commercial Courts in Punjab and Haryana[33]

The Governments of Punjab and Haryana have established specialized courts to handle cases of significant financial value within their respective session divisions. The Court of Additional District Judge-II in Ludhiana and the Exclusive Commercial Court in Gurugram are designated to address cases with a specified value of more than fifty lakh rupees in their respective regions. A Special Commercial Court has also been established at Gurugram to handle commercial disputes in the state, and this court has jurisdiction throughout Haryana. This move is in accordance with the provisions of the Commercial Courts Act, 2015, which aims to create specialized courts for resolving commercial disputes and related matters.

Appearance in Judicial Database Website

The data with respect to special courts is not centralised in any capacity whatsoever. Generally, details regarding the cases in each court can be found manually using the e-court platform. Any details about the number or types of special court cannot be found in the same place.

However, information regarding fast track special courts and special courts for MP/MLA can be accessed on the website of the Department of Justice.[34] It can be accessed as shown below:

Department of Justice Website.png

The dashboard of the Fast Track Special Courts has state-wise information regarding Functional FTSCs, Cumulative disposal, and pending cases. It also has the data for the number of non operational FTSCs including the E-POCSO Act across India in each state, along with the data for partially and fully operating FTSCs.

Status of FTSCs.png

The dashboard of MP-MLA Special Courts shows detailed information regarding the number of functional courts, number of cases disposed and pending cases.

MP-MLA Spl Court.png

The special courts established under National Investigation Agency have a dedicated section on this official website and it holds a state wise list of the special judges notified under the NIA Act along with the court name. However no notification since 2016 has been uploaded on this website.

NIA Spl Court.png

Finally, there is a dedicated website for Special Court (Trial of Offences Relating to Transactions in Securities (TORTS)) Bombay.[35] It has information about former and current judges along with officers. Moreover it also has the facility to access, cause lists, orders, sitting lists and old judgements on a redirected page of the Bombay High Court. It also has a dedicated section titled “statistical report” under which they have a filing report and pending matters report. This page was however empty as of February, 2024.

Data Challenges

As mentioned above, there is no centralized information regarding the types of special courts all across the country, and since state governments and central government have the power to establish special courts for issues and subject matter they deem fit e.g- in the case of special courts for MLA/MPs it becomes a difficult task to manually find out about each of them. Each department releases information regarding special courts whose subject matter falls under their purview. However, even that is not uniformly or regularly released.

Research that engages with Special Courts

Study on performance of Special courts set up under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocity Act[36]

The enactment of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act in 1989 aimed to address the growing incidents of atrocities against these marginalized communities. To expedite the handling of such cases, the Act established special courts. Despite this provision, the occurrences of atrocities have continued to rise. This report intends to conduct a thorough examination of the functioning of these special courts and analyze the underlying reasons for the increasing incidents of atrocities.

The data for this study has been collected from special courts operating in six states: Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, and Tamil Nadu. Questionnaires were administered to a diverse group of stakeholders, including judges, prosecutors, witnesses, court staff, police, victims, and the accused. Through this comprehensive investigation, the report aims to shed light on the efficacy of special courts and identify the factors contributing to the surge in atrocities.

Study on special fast track courts for sexual assault and child sexual abuse cases in Karnataka.[37]

This Report is based on an in-depth analysis of the judgments delivered by the special fast track courts established by the Karnataka government for trying cases of rape and sexual assault against women under Section 376, IPC and a special court to exclusively try cases of child sexual abuse under the "Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 ("POCSO"). The aim of this study was to examine how effective these courts have been in terms of both speed of disposal and securing substantive justice. In the study, it was found that despite the special courts’ status as they do not appear to have any specific fast track or special procedures or even sufficient resources to dispose a large number of cases. Moreover, our review of the judgments suggests several substantive concerns with their dispensation of justice - in particular, the very high incidence of complainants and witnesses turning hostile. There has also been a failure to refrain from relying upon outdated forms of medical evidence such as the two-finger test and prior sexual history of the complainant which the Supreme Court has repeatedly held to be discriminatory against women and not to be relied upon.

Unpacking Judicial Data to Track Implementation of the POCSO Act in Assam, Delhi & Haryana[38]

The research conducted for this report focuses on instances of sexual offences against children that have been recorded in the Case Information System (CIS) of the district courts. These cases are being or have been tried under the POCSO Act in two states, Assam and Haryana, as well as in the National Capital Territory of Delhi. The primary data source for this study is the e-Courts web portal, where cases from the years 2012 to 2020 are considered. However, the cutoff date for the year 2020 varies for each state or Union Territory (UT) due to the data being downloaded at different points in time. Specifically, the cutoff date is 23 April 2020 for Assam, 07 March 2020 for Delhi, and 21 March 2020 for Haryana.

Anti-Terrorism Courts and Procedural (In)Justice: The Case of the National Investigation Agency (NIA) Special Courts in South Chhattisgarh, India[39]

The National Investigation Agency Act of 2008 (NIA Act) was established to create a central agency, known as the National Investigation Agency, with the purpose of handling investigations and prosecutions related to national security offences. For cases classified as 'Scheduled Offences' under Section 6 of the NIA Act, a specific investigation procedure is prescribed. The NIA Act grants the Central Government and state governments the authority to designate Special Courts through notification, empowering them to investigate and prosecute Scheduled Offences using the special procedures outlined in the NIA Act. This power has been exercised on multiple occasions throughout India by both the Central Government and state governments.

However, the authority given to state governments under Section 22 of the NIA Act to designate Special Courts has been a matter of contention and debate before appellate courts. The disputes arise due to the ambiguity and vagueness in the wording of the law. This paper examines the NIA Act and relevant judicial precedents to analyze the scope of the power vested in state governments under Section 22 of the NIA Act. By utilizing an empirical study from the conflict-ridden region of Bastar in Chhattisgarh, the paper illustrates how the vagueness and ambiguity in Section 22 of the NIA Act have been exploited by the state of Chhattisgarh to create an unclear classification of offences related to left-wing extremism, enabling their trial by the Special Court in Bastar. Furthermore, the paper demonstrates that such classification has resulted in a violation of the procedural rights of individuals belonging to indigenous communities in Bastar.

Synonymous Terms

‘Set up’ & ‘Designated’ Special courts- A study on special courts in legislation from 1950 to 2015 revealed that laws often use the terms 'set up' and 'designate' interchangeably, even though they have distinct meanings. 'Setting up' a court involves creating a new court with infrastructure and personnel, while 'designating' a court means assigning additional case categories to a judge handling their regular workload. Out of 28 laws providing for special courts, 15 'set up' special courts, 10 'designated,' and 3 mandated both.

However, in practice, the government appears to have confused the terms 'setting up' and 'designating,' despite the legislative differences. Among the 15 laws that set up special courts, most state governments opted for designating existing courts rather than creating new ones. Additionally, some laws mandate the government to establish special courts using the term "shall," while others grant discretion using "may." Moreover, various statutes use terms like 'constitute,' 'create,' 'notify,' and 'appoint' without clear definitions, leading to more ambiguities and implementation challenges.

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  3. https://main.sci.gov.in/supremecourt/2016/29079/29079_2016_Order_01-Nov-2017.pdf
  4. https://main.sci.gov.in/supremecourt/2016/29079/29079_2016_Order_14-Dec-2017.pdf
  5. https://main.sci.gov.in/supremecourt/2016/29079/29079_2016_Order_04-Dec-2018.pdf
  6. https://www.indiacode.nic.in/handle/123456789/15358?view_type=search&sam_handle=123456789/2489
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  8. https://pib.gov.in/PressReleaseIframePage.aspx?PRID=1910436
  9. https://www.indiacode.nic.in/handle/123456789/2114?sam_handle=123456789/1362
  10. https://www.icsi.edu/media/webmodules/SPECIAL_COURTS_UNDER_COMPANIES_ACT_2013.pdf
  11. https://cdnbbsr.s3waas.gov.in/s35d6646aad9bcc0be55b2c82f69750387/uploads/2021/10/2021102971.pdf
  12. Writ Petition (Criminal) No. 1/2019
  13. https://www.indiacode.nic.in/handle/123456789/2079?sam_handle=123456789/1362
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  16. https://www.indiacode.nic.in/handle/123456789/1966?sam_handle=123456789/1362#:~:text=India%20Code%3A%20Special%20Court%20(Trial,Transactions%20in%20Securities)%20Act%2C%201992&text=Long%20Title%3A,connected%20therewith%20or%20incidental%20thereto
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  22. https://www.indiacode.nic.in/bitstream/123456789/5911/1/The%20Odisha%20Special%20Courts%20ACT%2C%202006.pdf
  23. https://www.indiacode.nic.in/handle/123456789/4004?sam_handle=123456789/1362
  24. https://www.indiacode.nic.in/bitstream/123456789/3052/1/Jharkhand%20Special%20Court%20Act%2C%202016.pdf
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  27. https://www.indiacode.nic.in/bitstream/123456789/2435/1/a1961-43.pdf
  28. https://www.indiacode.nic.in/bitstream/123456789/15717/1/land_grabing_act2020guj.pdf
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  30. https://www.indiacode.nic.in/bitstream/123456789/15121/1/sodapdf-merged-merging_result.pdf
  31. https://www.indiacode.nic.in/bitstream/123456789/15425/1/the_terrorist_affected_areas_%28special_courts%29_act%2C_1984.pdf
  32. https://www.indiacode.nic.in/handle/123456789/1482?sam_handle=123456789/1362#:~:text=India%20Code%3A%20Disturbed%20Areas%20(Special%20Courts)%20Act%2C%201976&text=Long%20Title%3A,and%20for%20matters%20connected%20therewith.
  33. https://highcourtchd.gov.in/special_commercial_court/index.php?action=about
  34. Fast Track Special Courts (FTSCs) | Department of Justice | India (doj.gov.in)
  35. | Special Court (TORTS) Bombay | (specialcourt-torts.gov.in)
  36. https://clpr.org.in/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Fast-Track-Court_final.pdf
  37. https://clpr.org.in/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Fast-Track-Court_final.pdf
  38. https://justicehub.in/dataset/data4justice-unpacking-judicial-data-to-track-implementation-of-the-pocso-act-in-assam-delhi-haryana
  39. https://repository.nls.ac.in/slr/vol16/iss1/5/
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