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This article has been written by Swati Mishra, pursuing the Certificate Course in Advanced Criminal Litigation & Trial Advocacy from LawSikho.

Introduction

Administration of justice is not limited to the conviction of the guilty person and acquittal of the innocent one but it also deals with the fair and speedy trial. We all know the fact that the speedy trial is the need of the hour. Speedy trial is one of the basic human rights as without speedy trial justice cannot be said to be done. It has been endorsed in almost all international charters and conventions. 

Most notably, one of them was ratified by India on 10, April 1979, which was Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The Directive Principles of State Policy articulated in Articles 38(1), 39 and 39-A of the Constitution of India and also on account of India’s international legal obligations to guarantee delivery of justice on time. No existing law specifically provides for any timeframe for the conclusion of the trial and if any timeframe has been provided in any statute then it is ‘directory’ not ‘mandatory’. The Supreme Court through its various judgements observed that speedy trial is inherent under Article 21 of the Constitution. 

Article 21

Article 21 of the Indian Constitution provides that no person shall be deprived of his life and personal liberty except according to the procedure established by law. The protection under Article 21 is available not only from executive actions but also from legislative actions. In Munn v. Illinois, the Court held that the term ‘life’ meant something more than mere animal existence.

Justice Bhagwati in the Maneka Gandhi Case observed that:

“The expression ‘personal liberty’ in Article 21 is of the widest amplitude and it covers a variety of rights which go to constitute the personal liberty of man and some of them have raised to the status of distinct fundamental rights and given additional protection under Article 19.”

The terms ‘Life and Liberty’ are very comprehensive terms and if interpreted it includes a person’s right to a speedy trial. ‘Life and Liberty’ are for the living. Every person has a right to live a free and healthy life. In the case of the victim, he ends up visiting the court for years to get justice.  In the case of the accused, he languishes behind bars for years awaiting trial. We all know that an accused is not guilty until proven guilty. In both cases parties to a proceeding. Such delay in proceedings violates their right to life and personal liberty and leads to mental anguish. Their worry, anxiety, expense and disturbance due to undue delay should be minimised.

Article 21 of the Constitution guarantees that no person shall be deprived of his life and personal liberty except according to the procedure established by law. The Supreme Court, in 1978, in the Maneka Gandhi case held that for the deprivation of life and liberty of a person, two conditions are necessary:

  • There should be a law, and 
  •  The law should be ‘reasonable’,’ fair’ and ‘just’. 

The procedure prescribed by law for depriving a person of his liberty cannot be “reasonable, fair or just” unless that procedure ensures a speedy trial.

Speedy trial under Article 21

In India, criminal cases go on for years, even sometimes for decades and if we take a look at civil cases, the condition is horrible. Speedy trial is important to safeguard the miscarriage of justice as well as undue and oppressive incarceration and ensures dispensation of justice by providing fair and just trial to all its citizens. After independence for two decades, courts were not very much concerned with the length of time an undertrial prisoner spent in prison, but what they maintained was that the prosecution had to justify the continued detention of the undertrial. But the post-emergency Supreme Court recognised the importance of not letting the incarcerated languish behind bars and evolved a series of Fundamental Rights that were not expressly present in the Indian Constitution. This included the Fundamental Right of Speedy Trial under Article 21 of the Constitution.

In 1979  Hussainara Khatoon v. Home Secretary, State of Bihar, a petition was filed for a writ of Habeas Corpus, on behalf of a large number of men and women including children who were languishing behind bars for years awaiting trial and that the offences, even if proved, would not warrant punishment for more than a few months.

The Apex Court, in this case, held that the “right to a speedy trial” is a fundamental right implicit in the right of life and personal liberty provided under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. In its decision, the court-mandated greater access to bail, more humane living standards and a significant reduction in time from arrest to trial. The court observed that no procedure which does not ensure reasonable quick trial can be regarded as reasonable, fair and just as interpreted in Maneka Gandhi case. Hence ordered the Bihar Government to release forthwith the undertrial prisoners on their bond.

Delay in process 

The main purpose of a speedy trial in the criminal justice system is to ensure justice to the victim and protect the accused from unnecessary incarceration before his conviction. So, the demand for speedy trial arose due to unnecessary delay in the disposal of cases. In 1981, State of Maharashtra v. Champalal Punjaji, observed that while deciding the question of whether there has been a denial of the right to a speedy trial, the Court is entitled to take into consideration whether the delay was unintentional, caused by overcrowding of the court’s docket or understaffing of the prosecutors and whether the accused contributed a fair part to the time taken. There are many reasons which can be responsible for the delay in the trial. The most popular among them are:

  • On the part of the judicial system like pendency of cases, the vacation of court, judge population ratio, independence of the judiciary.
  • On the part of the counsel like taking adjournments, lengthy arguments to impress clients, no preparation of the case.
  • On the part of the accused like absconding, non-cooperative behaviour, etc.

Consequences of delay

The real question before the Court was how to identify whether the delay is proper or not and if it is proper then what would be the consequences of such delay. To understand the answer to this question let’s have a look at some landmark judgements of the Supreme Court.

Sheela Barsa vs Union Of India, 1986

In this case, the Supreme Court held that if an accused is not tried speedily and his case remains pending before the Magistrate or the Sessions Court for an unreasonable length of time, it is clear that his fundamental Right to Speedy Trial would be violated unless there is some interim order passed by the superior Court or deliberate delay on the part of the accused. The consequence of such a delay would be that the prosecution would be liable to be quashed.

Abdul Rehman Antuley v. R S Nayak, 1992

In this case, the Supreme Court, in this case, held that the Right to a speedy trial under Article 21 is available at all stages namely, the stage of investigation, inquiry, trial, appeal, revision and retrial. The Court laid down detailed guidelines for the speedy trial of an accused in a criminal trial but refused to set a time limit for the conclusion of the trial. The Court held that the nature of the offence and the circumstances may be such that quashing of proceedings may not be in the interest of justice. In such a case it may make an order that the trial may be concluded within a fixed time and reduce the sentence.   

P. Ramachandra Rao v. State of Karnataka

In this case, the Apex Court laid down certain factors to identify whether an accused has been deprived of his Right to Speedy Trial. They are:

  1. length of delay,
  2. the justification for the delay,
  3. the accused assertion of his Right to Speedy Trial, and 
  4. prejudice caused to the accused by such delay. 

If nothing is shown and there are no circumstances to raise a presumption that the accused had been prejudiced there will be no justification to quash the conviction on the ground of delayed trial only. 

Durga Datta Sharma v. State

In this case, FIR in question was filed in the year 1980 and the charge sheet was submitted in the year 1985 and the case was committed in 1991 and in this way since the date of filing the FIR 14 years have been elapsed for which the court held that the petitioner has been deprived for the constitutional right of getting a speedy trial. The prosecution under the Prevention of Corruption Act has not commenced after 25 years. No charges had been framed and chances of commencing and concluding the trial soon were not strong. Observing that the accused persons had already suffered a lot both mentally and physically during the last 25 years, the Court dropped all charges against the accused.   

Rajiv Gupta v. State of Himachal Pradesh

In this case, the Apex Court held that if the trial of a case for an offence which is punishable with imprisonment up to three years has been pending for more than three years and if the trial is not commenced, then the criminal court is required to discharge and acquit the accused.

From the above judgements, we can infer that if a person is facing trial for a long period awaiting justice it would impede speedy trial and the same would be violative of Article 21 of the Constitution. To ensure speedy trial the Apex through its various judgements from time to time not only emphasised the need for a speedy trial but also laid down detailed guidelines to counter the delay in proceedings. There is a catena of pronouncements by the Supreme Court and the High Court wherein the courts held quashing of proceedings, dropping of the charges, the acquittal of the accused and right to bail of the accused as some of the remedies to the consequence of the delay of the proceedings. 

Provisions under CrPC 

Besides the above judgements, there are various legislative provisions (some of them were already existing some of them were inserted through amendments) under the Code Of Criminal Procedure,1973 to ensure speedy trial:

Already existing provisions

  • Section 157 (1) of CrPC imposes a duty upon the police officer, who on receiving information of commission of an offence, has to immediately send a report of the same to the magistrate and to proceed to the spot to investigate.  
  • Section 173(1) of Cr.P.C. provides a mandatory provision to complete all the investigations given under the chapter XII of the CrPC without unnecessary delay.
  • Section 207 of CrPC the accused has a right to get free of cost copies of:
    • Police Report 
    • FIR recorded under Section 154.
    • Statement recorded under Section 161(3) of all persons.
    • Confession and the statement recorded under Section 164.
    • Any other document forwarded to the magistrate with the police report under Section 173(5).
  • Chapter XXI of CrPC From Section 260 to Section 265 provides for summary trial in certain petty offences.
  • Section 468 of CrPC Provides that after a certain period, there is a bar to take cognizance of offences specified in subsection (2). It means the limitation period is 6 months for the offences punishable with a fine only, 1 year for the offences punishable with imprisonment for a term not exceeding one year and 3 years for the offences punishable with imprisonment for a term exceeding one year but not exceeding three years.  

Provisions inserted through amendments

  • Section 167(2)(a) of Cr.P.C. deals with the most important concepts of criminal procedure that are police custody which is granted at the initial stage of investigation for only 15 days, Judicial custody is the detention of the accused after 15-day police custody and default bail. In case of offences punishable with death, imprisonment for life or imprisonment for a term of not less than 10 years, the investigation is not completed within 90 days and in case of other offences, the investigation is not completed within 60 days then on expiration of such periods as the case may be the accused shall be released on the bail. It indicates the intent of the legislators to safeguard the accused from unlawful long detention and harassment.   
  • Section 173(1A) of Cr.P.C –  Provides that the investigation of the offence of rape shall be completed within two months. The period of two months starts from the date on which the information was recorded by the officer in charge of the police station.  
  • Chapter XXIA of Cr.P.C. – Provides provisions (from section 265-A to 265-L) for Plea Bargaining. This chapter applies to offences for which punishment is less than seven years. It does not apply to offences that affect the socio-economic condition of the country or offences committed against a woman or a child below the age of fourteen years. The objective behind bringing the concept of Plea Bargaining was to give fair resolution to a criminal charge at a faster rate than would be possible with a full trial.  
  • Section 309 (1) of Cr. P.C. – was inserted to prevent delay in the trial, and it provides that the proceedings to be conducted on day-to-day basis until the examination of all the witnesses have been done. It also provides that the trial relates to an offence under Section 376, 376-A, 376-B, 376-C, 376-D, 376-DA or 376-DB of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, the inquiry or trial shall, as far as possible be completed within two months from the date of filing of the charge sheet. Two provisions were added which deals with certain circumstances in which no adjournments shall be granted. 

Remedies available in case of delay in proceedings

The right to a speedy trial is a fundamental right inherent under Article 21 of the constitution which provides for the right to life and personal liberties. Our Constitution provides that whenever there is a violation of fundamental rights, a person can move to the Supreme Court under Article 32 and to the High Court under Article 226 of the Constitution.  

In P. Ramachandra Rao v. State of Karnataka, the court laid down certain guidelines and held that the powers conferred under Sections 309, 311 and 258 of the Code of Criminal Procedure shall be exercised by the criminal courts to effectuate the Right to Speedy Trial. To seek appropriate relief and directions, the jurisdiction of the High Court under Section 482 of Cr. P.C. and Articles 226 and 227 of the Constitution can be invoked.

So, if we see from the top to the bottom of the article, we can see that from time to time the right to a speedy trial was emphasised as being a fundamental right under Article 21 to reconcile justice and fairness with many other interests which are compelling and paramount. 

The Supreme Court has emphasized the above propositions again and again in its judgements. In Kartar Singh v. State of Punjab, the Supreme Court held that the concept of speedy trial is an essential part of Article 21 of our Constitution. This right to speedy trial begins with the arrest of the accused and consequent incarceration and continues at all the stages of investigation, enquiry, trial, appeal and revision so that prejudice caused by the impermissible and avoidable delay can be averted.   

Conclusion

From the above facts, we can conclude that initially, the speedy trial was not so important but after the period of emergency, the Courts started taking interest in providing speedy trials to prevent unnecessary harassments to the parties to a criminal proceeding. The Apex Courts through its judicial pronouncements held that speedy trial is an inalienable right under Article 21 of the constitution and hence no person shall be deprived of his life and liberty without the procedure of law and the procedure of law must be ‘fair’, ‘reasonable’, and ‘just’. 

The right to a speedy trial is available at all stages namely, investigation, inquiry, trial, appeal, revision and retrial. The Supreme Court in its various judgements emphasised that a person can approach the Supreme Court under Article 32 and the High Court under Article 226 to enforce the right to a speedy trial. However, the Court at various times refused to fix a time limit under which a trial has to be concluded. At last, after making so many provisions to ensure speedy justice the people of India are still not getting speedy justice in the true sense. There exist various reasons for the delay in the trial. Though the right to a speedy trial is a fundamental right, it still requires empirical study and comprehensive law for its meaningful application.

References


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