The administration of justice does not deal with the punishment of the guilty alone; it also means acquittal of the innocent. Fairness and speed are equally important in the administration of justice. Speed serves the best interests of the accused, the survivors and the society at large.
However, judicial delays in India are endemic. No person can hope to get justice in a fairly reasonable period. Proceedings in criminal cases go on for years, sometimes decades. Civil cases are delayed even longer. This is despite the legal position strongly favouring speedy trial.
Some cases decided by the Supreme Court of India in January 2008 are of relevance in establishing the setting for the discussion that follows.
Puran Singh versus State of Uttaranchal,
Appeal (Crl.) 437 of 2006
On 10 January 2008, the Supreme Court acquitted appellant Puran Singh of murder in a case that had run for the last 29 years. At the time of judgment he was in jail. It is significant that the court heard his appeal out of turn. But for this, the case would have lingered on much longer.
The case pertained to a murder committed on 3 August 1979 near Akhori Village, Patwari Barab Circle, Ukhimath Tehsil, Chamoli District (Uttarakhand). The Sessions Judge, Chamoli (Uttarakhand) acquitted the accused on February 6, 1981. However, the government appeal was allowed by the high court on 25 October 2005. The court convicted the accused person and ordered him to undergo imprisonment for life.
Puran Singh filed a Special Leave Petition before the Supreme Court of India. He also applied for bail as he was taken into custody after his conviction in October 2005. He remained in custody for around one-and-a-half years at this time, in addition to from August 1979 to February 1981.
On 10 April 2006, the Supreme Court of India admitted the appeal and issued notice on prayer for bail. On 24 November 2006, when the matter was called out, the court fixed final hearing of the appeal and observed that in view of that order, it was not necessary to deal with bail application. Finally the appeal came up for out of turn hearing and the accused was acquitted.
Sattatiya a.k.a. Satish Rajanna Kartalla versus State of Maharashtra,
Appeal (Crl.) 579 of 2005
In another judgment of the Supreme Court delivered shortly thereafter, on 16 January 2008, it acquitted appellant Sattatiya a.k.a. Satish Rajanna Kartalla of the charge of murder committed on 1 October 1994 at Greater Mumbai (Maharashtra).
Though in the present case the gap between the date of registration of the crime and the final acquittal was only around 13 years, the delay is completely inconsistent with the basic human rights of the accused person. The appellant remained in jail throughout this period as two courts, the sessions court as well as the high court, had sentenced him to life imprisonment.
According to the prosecution, on 1 October 1994, one Dr Rasiklal Dwarkadas Dani, a resident of Pratap Building 173, Dadiseth Agyari Lane, Mumbai, telephonically informed the Tilak Nagar Police Station that a man who was later on identified as (another) Satish was lying in a pool of blood. Police reached the spot and removed that person to GT Hospital, where he was declared dead on arrival. The information given was treated as the First Information Report. From the papers found in the pocket of the clothes of the deceased, the police contacted his brother, Rajaiyya Pochyya Bandapalli, on the same day and recorded his statement.
On October 3, the appellant and one Devabhuma Badapatti were arrested. After completing the investigation, the police submitted findings in the Court of the Metropolitan Magistrate who committed the case to the Court of the Sessions, Greater Bombay. The Additional Sessions Judge relied on circumstantial evidence and convicted both accused under section 302 read with section 34 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) for murdering the deceased and sentenced them to life imprisonment.
On appeal, the Division Bench of the High Court upheld the conviction of Sattatiya and confirmed the sentence of life imprisonment awarded to him, but acquitted Devabhuma Badpatti on the ground that there was no evidence against him.
The appellant came to the Supreme Court by filing a Special Leave Petition, whereupon it acquitted him.
Sambhaji Hindurao Deshmukh and Others versus State of Maharashtra,
Appeal (Crl.) 1097 of 2005
The Supreme Court on 17 January 2008 this time acquitted five persons accused of a murder that occurred on 18 May 1988 in a village of Satara District, Maharashtra.
In this case, the proceedings continued for around 20 years. There were originally six accused, but one of them died during trial. They had been acquitted in the trial court on 30 January 1995. The state government filed an appeal before the Bombay High Court, which set aside their acquittal in March 2005 and convicted all of them for the murder.
The accused appealed before the Supreme Court, which restored the judgment of the trial court. The accused persons were in jail at the time of pronouncement of the judgment in the Supreme Court.
Speedy trial under international law
The right to speedy trial has been endorsed in almost all relevant international charters and conventions, most notably the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which India ratified on 10 April 1979.
The ICCPR provides explicitly for the right to speedy trial. Article 9(1) declares that “every one has the right to liberty and security of person [and that] no one shall be subject to arbitrary arrest or detention”. Article 9(3) declares further that,
Any one arrested or detained on a criminal charge shall be brought promptly before a judge or other officer authorized by law to exercise judicial power and shall be entitled to trial within a reasonable time or to release. It shall not be the general rule that the persons awaiting trial shall be detained in custody but release may be subject to guarantees to appear for trial at any stage of the judicial proceedings and, should occasion arise, for execution of the judgment.
Article 10(1) says that “all persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person”. Article 17 declares that the privacy, honour and reputation of an individual shall not be interfered with unlawfully.
Article 2(2) creates an obligation upon the ratifying states to enact domestic legislation to give effect to the rights guaranteed by the covenant. Article 3 creates a further obligation upon such states to ensure that the rights guaranteed by the covenant are made available to all their citizens.
The enforceability of international conventions has come up before the Supreme Court of India. The Supreme Court in People’s Union of India versus Union of India [1997 (3) SCC 433] has observed that
The provisions of the covenant, which elucidate and go to effectuate the fundamental rights guaranteed by our Constitution, can certainly be relied upon by courts as facets of those fundamental rights and hence, enforceable as such.
In Vishaka and Others versus State of Rajasthan and Others [1997 (6) SCC 241] the Supreme Court observed:
The international conventions and norms are to be read into them in the absence of enacted domestic law occupying the fields when there is no inconsistency between them. It is now an accepted rule of judicial construction that regard must be had to international conventions and norms for construing domestic law when there is no inconsistency between them and there is a void in the domestic law.
While propounding the above proposition, the court also referred to Nilabati Behera versus State of Orissa [1993 (2) SCC 746] wherein a provision in the ICCPR was referred to support the view taken that an enforceable right to compensation is not alien to the concept of enforcement of a guaranteed right as a public law remedy under article 32, as distinct from the private law remedy in torts. The court said that there was no reason why these international conventions and norms could not be used for construing the fundamental rights expressly guaranteed in the Constitution of India:
Any international convention not inconsistent with the Fundamental Rights and in harmony with its spirit must be read into these provisions to enlarge the meaning and content thereof, to promote the object of the constitutional guarantee.
However, it must be appreciated that at present treaties, agreements and covenants that the government signs and ratifies do not automatically become a part of the domestic law but require parliament or a state legislature to undertake legislation to do so. As such, no one can lay claim or found any rights upon the provisions of an agreement or covenant alone. However, on the question of human rights, the courts have declared that insofar as the rights contained in such international instruments are consistent with the fundamental rights guaranteed by part III of the Constitution of India, they can be read as facets of those rights and elucidate its contents.
In India, neither the constitution nor any existing laws or statutes specifically confer the right to speedy trial on the accused. Most of the existing laws also do not provide any timeframe in which a trial must be concluded; in cases where some timeframes have been provided, the courts have held them to be "directory" and not "mandatory".
Procedural law, i.e. the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), 1973, provides a statutory time limit to complete an investigation. Section 167 further provides that a failure to complete investigation within the statutory timeframe shall lead to release of the accused in custody on bail.
The Supreme Court of India in its landmark judgment in Hussainara Khatoon versus State of Bihar [1980 (1) SCC 98] explicitly held speedy trial as part of article 21 of the constitution guaranteeing right to life and liberty. The Supreme Court took the matter up when the Indian Express newspaper carried a news story about the state of under-trial prisoners in Bihar, some of them were in jail for as many as five, seven or nine years and a few of them for even more than 10 years without their trials having begun. Justice P N Bhagwati observed:
There is also one other infirmity of the legal and judicial system which is responsible for this gross denial of justice to the undertrial prisoners and that is the notorious delay in disposal of cases. It is a bad reflection on the legal and judicial system that the trial of an accused should not even commence for a long number of years. Even a delay of one year in the commencement of the trial is bad enough; how much worse could it be when the delay is as long as 3 or 5 or 7 or even 10 years. Speedy trial is of the essence of criminal justice and there can be no doubt that delay in trial by itself constitutes denial of justice.
We think that even under our Constitution, though speedy trial is not specifically enumerated as a fundamental right, it is implicit in the broad sweep and content of Article 21 as interpreted by this Court in Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India. We have held in that case that Article 21 confers a fundamental right on every person not to be deprived of his life or liberty except in accordance with the procedure prescribed by law and it is not enough to constitute compliance with the requirement of that Article that some semblance of a procedure should be prescribed by law, but that the procedure should be “reasonable, fair and just”. If a person is deprived of his liberty under a procedure which is not “reasonable, fair or just”, such deprivation would be violative of his fundamental right under Article 21 and he would be entitled to enforce such fundamental right and secure his release. Now obviously procedure prescribed by law for depriving a person of his liberty cannot be “reasonable, fair or just” unless that procedure ensures a speedy trial for determination of the guilt of such person. No procedure which does not ensure a reasonable quick trial can be regarded as “reasonable, fair or just” and it would fall foul of Article 21. There can, therefore, be no doubt that speedy trial and by speedy trial we mean reasonably expeditious trial, is an integral and essential part of the fundamental right to life and liberty enshrined in Article 21.
The court came down harshly on the state for pleading financial and administrative constraints in providing speedy trial:
The State cannot avoid its constitutional obligation to provide speedy trial to the accused by pleading financial or administrative inability. The State is under a constitutional mandate to ensure speedy trial and whatever is necessary for this purpose has to be done by the State. It is also the constitutional obligation of this Court, as the guardian of the fundamental rights of the people, as a sentinel on the qui vive, to enforce the fundamental right of the accused to speedy trial by issuing the necessary directions to the State which may include taking of positive action, such as augmenting and strengthening the investigative machinery, setting up new courts, building new court houses, providing more staff and equipment to the courts, appointment of additional judges and other measures calculated to ensure speedy trial...
The court also criticized monetary based approach of bail:
One reason why our legal and judicial system continually denies justice to the poor by keeping them for long years in pretrial detention is our highly unsatisfactory bail system. It suffers from a property oriented approach which seems to proceed on the erroneous assumption that risk of monetary loss is the only deterrent against fleeing from justice.
The court further observed that the practice of release of accused only against bail with monetary sureties had done more harm than good. It noted that if the accused has roots in the community and is not likely to abscond, a personal bond should usually be adequate to issue a release order.
In Maneka Gandhi versus Union of India and Another [1978 (1) SCC 248], a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court went into the meaning of the expression “procedure established by law” in article 21. The court held that the procedure established by law does not mean any procedure but a procedure that is reasonable, just and fair. The court read articles 19 and 14 into article 21 of the constitution for this purpose:
The law must therefore now be taken to be well-settled that Article 21 does not exclude Article 19 and that even if there is a law prescribing a procedure for depriving a person of ‘personal liberty’ and there is consequently no infringement of the fundamental right conferred by Article 21, such law, insofar as it abridges or takes away any fundamental right under Article 19 would have to meet the challenge of that Article...
Now, if a law depriving a person of 'personal liberty' and prescribing a procedure for that purpose within the meaning of Article 21 has to stand the test of one or more of the fundamental rights conferred under Article 19 which may be applicable in a given situation, ex-hypothesi it must also be liable to be tested with reference to Article 14...
There can be no doubt that [article 14] is a founding faith of the Constitution. It is indeed the pillar on which rests securely the foundation of our democratic republic...
In fact equality and arbitrariness are sworn enemies; one belongs to the rule of law in a republic, while the other, to the whim and caprice of an absolute monarch. Where an act is arbitrary, it is implicit in it that it is unequal both according to political logic and constitutional law and is therefore violative of Article 14. Article 14 strikes at arbitrariness in State action and ensures fairness and equality of treatment. The principle of reasonableness, which legally as well as philosophically, is an essential element of equality or non-arbitrariness pervades Article 14 like a brooding omnipresence and the procedure contemplated by Article 21 must answer the test of reasonableness in order to be in conformity with Article 14. It must be “right and just and fair” and not arbitrary, fanciful or oppressive; otherwise, it would be no procedure at all and the requirement of Article 21 would not be satisfied.
In Sheela Barse versus Union of India [1986 (3) SCC 632], a social worker had taken up the case of helpless children below age of 16 illegally detained in jails. She prayed for the release of such young children from jails, supply of information as to the existence of juvenile courts, homes and schools and other necessary directions for proper looking after of the children in custody.
In the judgment, the Supreme Court observed that where the court comes to a conclusion that the right to speedy trial of an accused has been infringed, the charge or conviction, as the case may be, must be quashed. The court directed the state governments to take steps for completing an investigation within three months in cases lodged against children. Further, it directed the establishment of an adequate number of courts to expedite the trial of children detained in various jails.
In Abdul Rehman Antulay and Others versus R. S. Nayak and Another [1992 (1) SCC 225], a five-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court reiterated the position that a right to speedy trial is implicit in article 21 of the constitution. In this case the court also laid down detailed propositions of law on speedy trial.
The court observed that that the provisions of the CrPC were consistent with the right to speedy trial and if followed in letter and spirit, there would not be any grievance but, unfortunately, these provisions are honoured more in breach than in compliance. The court specifically mentioned section 309 of the CrPC, which provides that the proceedings shall be held as expeditiously as possible and in particular that when the examination of witnesses has begun it shall continue from day-to-day until all the witnesses in attendance have been examined.
Another landmark judgment was Supreme Court Legal Aid Committee Representing Undertrial Prisoners versus Union of India and Others [1994 (6) SCC 731]. In this judgment, the Supreme Court of India, while dealing with the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985, laid down certain conditions for mandatory release of under-trial prisoners on bail where trial was not completed within a specified period of time. The court’s directions with respect to pending cases included:
(i) Where the undertrial is accused of an offence(s) under the Act prescribing a punishment of imprisonment of five years or less and find, such an undertrial shall be released on bail if he has been in jail for a period which is not less than half of the punishment provided for the offence with which he is charged and where he is charged with more than one offence, the offence providing the highest punishment. If the offence with which he is charged prescribes the maximum fine, the bail amount shall be 50% of the said amount with two sureties for like amount. If the maximum fine is not prescribed bail shall be to the satisfaction of the Special Judge concerned with two sureties for like amount.
(ii) Where the undertrial accused is charged with an offence(s) under the Act providing for punishment exceeding five years and fine, such an undertrial shall be released on bail on the term set out in (i) above provided that his bail amount shall in no case be less than Rs. 50, 000 with two sureties for like amount.
(iii) Where the undertrial accused is charged with an offence(s) under the Act punishable with minimum imprisonment of ten years and a minimum find of Rupees of one lakh [100,000], such an undertrial shall be released on bail if he has been in jail for not less than five years provided he furnishes bail in the sum of Rupees one lakh with two sureties for the like amount.
(iv) Where an undertrial accused is charged for the commission of an offence punishable under Sections 31 and 31-A of the Act, such an undertrial shall not be entitled to be released on bail by virtue of this order.
The court subjected the directives in clauses (i), (ii) and (iii) above to the same general conditions as ordinarily apply, which include deposition of the under-trial prisoner’s passport with the court; reporting to the police station prosecuting the case at prescribed periods, and an obligation not to leave the jurisdiction of the trial court without the court’s express permission. Further, the court denied the benefit of the above directions to those accused that are likely to tamper with evidence or influence prosecution witnesses.
The issue of the huge number of pending and delayed criminal cases came up before the Supreme Court in a petition filed by a non-governmental organisation. The Supreme Court in the case reported as Common Cause versus Union of India & Others [1996 (4) SCC 33] observed:
It is a matter of common experience that in many cases where the persons are accused of minor offences punishable for not more than three years—or even less—with or without fine, the proceedings are kept pending for years together. If they are poor and helpless, they languish in jails for long periods either because there is no one to bail them out or because there is no one to think of them. The very pendency of criminal proceedings for long periods by itself operates as an engine of oppression. Quite often, the private complainants institute these proceedings out of oblique motives. Even in case of offences punishable for seven years or less - with or without fine—the prosecutions are kept pending for years and years together in criminal courts. In a majority of these cases, whether instituted by police or private complainants, the accused belong to the poorer sections of the society, who are unable to afford competent legal advice. Instances have also come before courts where the accused, who are in jail, are not brought to the court on every date of hearing and for that reason also the cases undergo several adjournments. It appears essential to issue appropriate directions to protect and effectuate the right to life and liberty of the citizens guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution. It is also necessary to ensure that these criminal prosecutions do not operate as engines of oppression.
The court issued detailed guidelines for the release of under-trial prisoners and the ending of proceedings. The court ordered the release of under-trial prisoners on bail in cases involving offences under the IPC or any other law in force at the time if the offences are punishable with imprisonment not exceeding
i. Three years with or without fine and if trials for such offences have been pending for one year or more and the accused concerned have been in jail for a period of six months or more.
ii. Five years, with or without fine, and if the trials for such offences have been pending for two years or more and the accused concerned have been in jail for a period of six months or more.
iii. Seven years, with or without fine, and if the trials for such offences have been pending for two years or more and the accused concerned have not been released on bail but have been in jail for a period of one year or more.
The court ordered the quashing of criminal proceedings and discharge or acquittal of accused persons in cases involving offences under IPC or any other law in force at the time in cases of
i. Traffic offences, if the proceedings have been pending for more than two years on account of a non-serving summons to the accused or for any other reason.
ii. Offences compoundable with the permission of the court, if the proceedings have been pending for more than two years and trials have still not commenced.
iii. Non-cognizable and bailable offences that have been pending for more than two years and trials have still not commenced.
iv. Offences punishable with fine only and are not of recurring nature, and have been pending for more than one year and trials have still not commenced.
v. Offences punishable with imprisonment of up to one year, with or without fine, and have been pending for more than one year and trials have still not commenced.
The court said that the period that a criminal case has been pending must be calculated from the date that the accused are summoned to appear in court. Further, the court excluded offences
i. Of corruption, misappropriation of public funds, cheating, whether under the IPC, Prevention of Corruption Act, 1947, or any other statute;
ii. Concerning smuggling, foreign exchange violation and offences under the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985;
iii. Under the Essential Commodities Act, 1955, Food Adulteration Act, and acts dealing with the environment or any other economic offences;
iv. Under the Arms Act, 1959, Explosive Substances Act, 1908, and Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act, 1987;
v. Relating to the army, navy and air force;
vi. Against public tranquility;
vii. Relating to public servants;
viii. Relating to coins and government stamps;
ix. Relating to elections;
x. Relating to giving false evidence and offences against public justice;
xi. Of any other sort against the state;
xii. Relating to taxation; and
xii. Of defamation as defined in Section 499 of the IPC.
In the second Common Cause Judgment [1996 (6) SCC 775, 199], the Supreme Court clarified that the time-limit mentioned regarding pending criminal cases in the first judgment shall not apply to cases wherein the delay of criminal proceedings is wholly or partly attributable to the dilatory tactics adopted by the accused or on account of any other action of the accused which results in prolonging the trial. It added further categories of offences from its directions above, regarding offences
i. Of matrimony under the IPC including section 498A or under any other law;
ii. Under the Negotiable Instruments Act, including offences under its section 138;
iii. Relating to criminal misappropriation of property of the complainant as well as offences relating to criminal breach of trust under the IPC or under any other law;
iv. Under Section 304A of the IPC or any offence pertaining to rash and negligent acts which are made punishable under any other law; and,
v. Affecting public health, safety, convenience, decency and morals as listed in chapter XIV of the IPC or such offences under any other law.
The Supreme Court in Shaheen Welfare Association versus Union of India [1996 (2) SCC 616] granted relief to under-trial prisoners held under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) (TADA) Act, 1987, due to delays in their trials. The court divided the TADA under-trial prisoners into four classes for the purpose of granting bail, specifically, those
i. Whose release would prejudice the prosecution case and whose liberty may prove to be a menace to society in general and to the complainant and prosecution witnesses in particular, and who cannot therefore receive liberal treatment;
ii. Whose overt acts or involvement directly attracts section 3 or 4 of the TADA Act, who can be released on bail if they have been in prison for five years or more and whose trial is not likely to be completed within the next six months, unless the court comes to the conclusion that their antecedents are such that releasing them may be harmful to the lives of the complainant, the family members of the complainant, or witnesses.
iii. On trial not because of any activity directly attracting sections 3 and 4, but by virtue of section 120B or 147 of the IPC, who can be dealt with leniently and can be released if they have been in jail for three years; and,
iv. Found possessing incriminating articles in notified areas booked under section 5 of the TADA Act, who can be dealt with leniently and can be released if they have been in jail for two years.
In Raj Deo Sharma versus State of Bihar [1998 Indlaw SC 1131], the Supreme Court issued certain directions for effective enforcement of the right to speedy trial as recognized in Antulay’s Case [1992 (1) SCC 225], and prescribed time limits for completion of prosecution evidence in criminal trials. During the hearing of this case, certain facts were brought to the notice of the court. It was found that in Bihar alone, several cases were pending for more than 25 years. A report submitted by the Special Judge, CBI Court, Patna in December 1996 pointed out that in one case pending from 1982 the prosecution had cited as many as 40 witnesses but had examined only three witnesses up to 1996, the last in 1993. The report also pointed out that thereafter, the prosecution had taken 36 adjournments to examine the remaining witnesses, but had not produced even one of them. After discussing the existing case law, the Supreme Court laid down, among other things, that if an offence is punishable with imprisonment for a period
i. Not exceeding seven years, whether the accused is in jail or not, the court shall close the prosecution evidence on completion of a period of two years from the date of recording the plea of the accused on the charges framed, irrespective of whether the prosecution has examined all the witnesses or not and the court can proceed to the next stage of trial. Furthermore, if the accused has been in jail for a period of over half of the maximum period of punishment prescribed for the offence, bail shall be granted.
ii. Exceeding seven years, whether the accused is in jail or not, the court shall close the prosecution evidence on completion of a period of three years from the date of recording the plea of the accused on the charges framed, whether the prosecution has examined all the witnesses or not.
In the second Raj Deo Sharma Case [1997 (7) SCC 604], the court clarified that if the delay in trial has been caused on account of the conduct of the accused, no court is obliged to close the prosecution evidence within the period prescribed. Further, if the trial has been stayed by the orders of the court or by operation of law, the time during which the stay was in force shall be excluded from the period established for closing prosecution evidence.
In conclusion, the law of India governing the right to speedy trial can be summed up as follows:
i. The fair, just and reasonable procedure implicit in article 21 of the Constitution of India grants the accused the right to be tried speedily. It is in the interest of all concerned that the guilt or innocence of the accused is determined as quickly as possible. However, it is neither advisable nor practicable to fix any time limit for trial of offences. It is for the court to weigh all the circumstances of a given case before deciding whether there is denial of the right to speedy trial.
ii. The right to speedy trial flowing from article 21 encompasses all stages; namely, investigation, inquiry, trial, appeal, revision and retrial.
iii. While determining whether undue delay has occurred, all the attendant circumstances must be considered, including nature of offence, number of accused and witnesses, the work load of the court, and prevailing local conditions. The state is obliged to ensure a speedy trial, but a realistic and practical approach should be adopted in such matters instead of a pedantic one.
iv. Each and every delay does not necessarily prejudice the accused. However, inordinately long delays may be taken as presumptive proof of prejudice. The incarceration of the accused is relevant. The prosecution should not be allowed to become a persecution. But the point at which this may happen depends upon the facts of a given case.
v. Whether the accused asked for a speedy trial or not is immaterial. However, the accused cannot plead for violation of the right to a speedy trial if they are guilty of dilatory tactics or the delay has occurred due to the operation of any order of a higher court staying the proceedings.
vi. If the court concludes that the right to speedy trial of an accused has been breached, it may quash the charge or conviction, but that is not the only course open to it. The court may make other appropriate orders considering the nature of offences and other circumstances in a given case.
Posted on 2008-07-01