Anakha K Vijay
Victims have been called ‘uninvited guests’ in the realm of criminal justice. Jurists argue that some victims are affected by the crime more than others. It is in this context that the position of victims of acid attacks must be seen. Acid attacks being a distinct complex offence with 3220 instances reported in 2000-17 deserve attention as a separate category of offence.
The Victims’ Declaration, 1985 contains four factors that fructify the role of the victim in criminal justice administration. These are restitution, compensation, assistance and access to justice. This article seeks to analyse the position of acid attack victims in Indian legal system with reference to these four parameters.
Traditionally, legal response to victims’ rights has been through suppression of victim identity as during in camera trials. Such ‘passive’ protection was clearly insufficient in acid attacks cases. Fortunately the system has moved from this passive phase to an active one in securing victims participatory justice.
Presently, the victim of a crime can set the criminal justice machinery in motion by filing the FIR. If the police fail to act upon the information, victim can write to the Superintendent of Police who is duty bound to investigate. A complaint can also be made to the Magistrate who may direct investigation by police. Further, at investigation stage, a victim can be made to identify the accused in an identification parade. During the trial, the victim is now allowed to engage an advocate of his choice to assist the prosecution. However, there is still ambiguity on the role of the victims’ counsel vis a vis the prosecution.
Legal service authorities can play an effective role towards securing access to justice to acid attack victims. The NALSA (Legal Services to Victims of Acid Attacks) Scheme 2016 is a laudable initiative in this regard. The scheme seeks to strengthen legal aid available to acid attack victims. Also, it aims to create awareness about entitlements of acid attack victims and to secure medical aid.
Securing compensatory justice to victims is a concept now accepted into the legal system. The compensatory justice regime received a fillip after the 2009 amendments to the CrPC created a Victim Compensation Scheme.While calculating the quantum of compensation, Courts must consider the capacity of the accused to pay it besides nature of the crime. The need for compensation in the context of the victim or members of the family of the victim is also relevant.
There is definitely a need for clarity in the manner of award of compensation. Very often, compensation paid is only to meet medical expenses. Other factors such as loss of income are often not considered.  Also, the amount ordered could be too meagre.
The Law Commission has recommended the creation of a Criminal Injuries Compensation Board in India to help victims of acid attack get compensation for medical expenses and rehabilitation.This is to let the victim must feel that the system has taken care of him.  In cases involving acid attacks, the compensation must be awarded considering the impact of acid attack on social, economic and personal life of the victim. For instance, the Court cannot be oblivious of the fact that the victim of acid attack requires permanent treatment for the damaged skin. 
Reparation of victims is a relatively ignored area in India. The primary challenge in securing rehabilitation and reparation for acid attack victims is their invisibility in the system. Further, a victimisation survey conducted in Delhi and Mumbai in 2015 revealed that victims avoided reporting cases mostly because they feared getting caught up in police or court matters. This can be overcome only if the criminal justice administration system secures the trust of the victims. These barriers can be overcome only by reaching out to acid attack victims.
Rehabilitation of acid attack victims would necessitate involving hospital and health service providers. In Laxmi, the hospital where the victim was first treated was directed to give a certificate that the individual is a victim of an acid attack. This certificate may be utilized by the victim for treatment and reconstructive surgeries or any other scheme that the victim may be entitled to. It was also stressed that no hospital should refuse treatment to acid attack victims citing lack of specialized facilities. In acid attack cases, there is a need to secure a bridge between the legal system and medical facilities. Legal service centres can be set up in hospitals with specialised facilities for treatment of burns. Para-legal volunteers can also be involved in the process.
We can also take cue from the Acid Control Act 2002 and Acid Crime Prevention Acts 2002 in Bangladesh that focuses on rehabilitation of victims and prevention of acid attacks. In fact, the National Women Commission had proposed a draft Bill creating the National Acid Attack Victim’s Assistance Board and also providing in detail the procedure to assist victims.
One can adopt two strategies to understand acid attacks. The first is to conceptualise it as a form of sex discrimination and the second is to see it in terms of the experience of women. Ideally, these two approached must converge.
The present legal system sometimes looks as though it is working in a ‘vertical’ manner, with the State as the prosecutor and the accused in the position of the punished. There is definitely a need to adopt a ‘horizontal’ sort of system that is more participative particularly including victims of offences within its framework. This further necessitates a shift from the function of criminal law as an instrument of retributive justice to one of restorative justice. However, the main challenge here is to advance the interests of the victim within the contours of law without affecting fair trial guarantees of the accused. Criminal justice must look forward than backwards and reflect an egalitarianism that recognises the vulnerabilities and dignity of victims.
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