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1. The process of criminal trial in India

The Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 (the CrPC) is the procedural law providing the machinery for punishment of offenders under the substantive criminal law, be it the Indian Penal Code, 1860 or any other penal statute.

The CrPC contains elaborate details about the procedure to be followed in every investigation, inquiry and trial, for every offence under the Indian Penal Code or under any other law. It divides the procedure to be followed for administration of criminal justice into three stages: namely investigation, inquiry and trial.

Investigation is a preliminary stage conducted by the police and usually starts after the recording of a First Information Report (FIR) in the police station. If the officer-in-charge of a police station suspects the commission of an offence, from statement of FIR or when the magistrate directs or otherwise, the officer or any subordinate officer is duty-bound to proceed to the spot to investigate facts and circumstances of the case and if necessary, takes measures for the discovery and arrest of the offender.

Investigation primarily consists of ascertaining facts and circumstances of the case. It includes all the efforts of a police officer for collection of evidence: proceeding to the spot; ascertaining facts and circumstances; discovery and arrest of the suspected offender; collection of evidence relating to the commission of offence, which may consist of the examination of various persons including the accused and taking of their statements in writing and the search of places or seizure of things considered necessary for the investigation and to be produced at the trial; formation of opinion as to whether on the basis of the material collected there is a case to place the accused before a magistrate for trial and if so, taking the necessary steps for filing the charge-sheet. Investigation ends in a police report to the magistrate.

Inquiry consists of a magistrate, either on receiving a police report or upon a complaint by any other person, being satisfied of the facts.

Trial is the judicial adjudication of a person’s guilt or innocence. Under the CrPC, criminal trials have been categorized into three divisions having different procedures, called warrant, summons and summary trials.

A warrant case relates to offences punishable with death, imprisonment for life or imprisonment for a term exceeding two years. The CrPC provides for two types of procedure for the trial of warrant cases by a magistrate, triable by a magistrate, viz., those instituted upon a police report and those instituted upon complaint. In respect of cases instituted on police report, it provides for the magistrate to discharge the accused upon consideration of the police report and documents sent with it. In respect of the cases instituted otherwise than on police report, the magistrate hears the prosecution and takes the evidence. If there is no case, the accused is discharged. If the accused is not discharged, the magistrate holds regular trial after framing the charge, etc. In respect of offences punishable with death, life imprisonment or imprisonment for a term exceeding seven years, the trial is conducted in a sessions court after being committed or forwarded to the court by a magistrate.

A summons case means a case relating to an offence not being a warrant case, implying all cases relating to offences punishable with imprisonment not exceeding two years. In respect of summons cases, there is no need to frame a charge. The court gives substance of the accusation, which is called “notice”, to the accused when the person appears in pursuance to the summons. The court has the power to convert a summons case into a warrant case, if the magistrate thinks that it is in the interest of justice.

The high court may empower magistrates of first class to try certain offences in a summary way. Second class magistrates can summarily try an offence only if punishable only with a fine or imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months. In a summary trial, no sentence of imprisonment for a term exceeding three months can be passed in any conviction. The particulars of the summary trial are entered in the record of the court. In every case tried summarily in which the accused does not plead guilty, the magistrate records the substance of the evidence and a judgment containing a brief statement of the reasons for the finding.

The common features of the trials in all three of the aforementioned procedures may be roughly broken into the following distinct stages:

1. Framing of charge or giving of notice
This is the beginning of a trial. At this stage, the judge is required to sift and weigh the evidence for the purpose of finding out whether or not a prima facie case against the accused has been made out. In case the material placed before the court discloses grave suspicion against the accused that has not been properly explained, the court frames the charge and proceeds with the trial. If, on the contrary, upon consideration of the record of the case and documents submitted, and after hearing the accused person and the prosecution in this behalf, the judge considers that there is not sufficient ground for proceeding, the judge discharges the accused and records reasons for doing so.

The words “not sufficient ground for proceeding against the accused” mean that the judge is required to apply a judicial mind in order to determine whether a case for trial has been made out by the prosecution. It may be better understood by the proposition that whereas a strong suspicion may not take the place of proof at the trial stage, yet it may be sufficient for the satisfaction of the court in order to frame a charge against the accused person.

The charge is read over and explained to the accused. If pleading guilty, the judge shall record the plea and may, with discretion, convict him. If the accused pleads not guilty and claims trial, then trial begins. Trial starts after the charge has been framed and the stage preceding it is called inquiry. After the inquiry, the charge is prepared and after the formulation of the charge, trial of the accused starts. A charge is nothing but formulation of the accusation made against a person who is to face trial for a specified offence. It sets out the offence that was allegedly committed.

2. Recording of prosecution evidence
After the charge is framed, the prosecution is asked to examine its witnesses before the court. The statement of witnesses is on oath. This is called examination-in-chief. The accused has a right to cross-examine all the witnesses presented by the prosecution. Section 309 of the CrPC provides that the proceeding shall be held as expeditiously as possible and in particular, when the examination of witnesses has once begun, the same shall be continued day-to-day until all the witnesses in attendance have been examined.

3. Statement of accused
The court has powers to examine the accused at any stage of inquiry or trial for the purpose of eliciting any explanation against incriminating circumstances appearing before it. However, it is mandatory for the court to question the accused after examining the evidence of the prosecution if it incriminates the accused. This examination is without oath and before the accused enters a defence. The purpose of this examination is to give the accused a reasonable opportunity to explain incriminating facts and circumstances in the case.

4. Defence evidence
If after taking the evidence for the prosecution, examining the accused and hearing the prosecution and defence, the judge considers that there is no evidence that the accused has committed the offence, the judge is required to record the order of acquittal.

However, when the accused is not acquitted for absence of evidence, a defence must be entered and evidence adduced in its support. The accused may produce witnesses who may be willing to depose in support of the defence. The accused person is also a competent witness under the law. The accused may apply for the issue of process for compelling attendance of any witness or the production of any document or thing. The witnesses produced by him are cross-examined by the prosecution.

The accused person is entitled to present evidence in case he so desires after recording of his statement. The witnesses produced by him are cross-examined by the prosecution. Most accused persons do not lead defence evidence. One of the major reasons for this is that India follows the common law system where the burden of proof is on the prosecution, and the degree of proof required in a criminal trial is beyond reasonable doubt.

5. Final arguments
This is the final stage of the trial. The provisions of the CrPC provide that when examination of the witnesses for the defence, if any, is complete, the prosecutor shall sum up the prosecution case and the accused is entitled to reply.

6. Judgment
After conclusion of arguments by the prosecutor and defence, the judge pronounces his judgment in the trial.

Here it is relevant to mention that the CrPC also contains detailed provisions for compounding of offences. It lists various compoundable offences under the Indian Penal Code, of which 21 may be compounded by the specified aggrieved party without the permission of the court and 36 that can be compounded only after securing the permission of the court. Compounding of offences brings a trial to an end.

Under the CrPC an accused can also be withdrawn from prosecution at any stage of trial with the permission of the court. If the accused is allowed to be withdrawn from prosecution prior to framing of charge, this is a discharge, while in cases where such withdrawal is allowed after framing of charge, it is acquittal.

Posted on 2008-07-01

Asian Legal Resource Centre
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