Right of speedy trial

No person shall be deprived of his life or his personal liberty except according to procedure established by law.

Life and liberty, the words employed in shaping Article 21, by the Founding Fathers of the Constitution, are not to be read narrowly in the sense drearily dictated by dictionaries; they are organic terms to be construed meaningfully. Embarking upon the interpretation thereof, feeling the heart-throb of the Preamble, deriving strength from the Directive Principles of State Policy and alive to their constitutional obligation, the Courts have allowed Article 21 to stretch its arms as wide as it legitimately can. The mental agony, expense and strain which a person proceeded against in criminal law has to undergo and which, coupled with delay, may result in impairing the capability or ability of the accused to defend himself have persuaded the constitutional courts of the country in holding the right to speedy trial a manifestation of fair, just and reasonable procedure enshrined in Article 21. Speedy trial, again, would encompass within its sweep all its stages including investigation, inquiry, trial, appeal, revision and re-trial in short everything commencing with an accusation and expiring with the final verdict the two being respectively the terminus a quo and terminus ad quem of the journey which an accused must necessarily undertake once faced with an implication.

Is it at all necessary to have limitation bars terminating trials and proceedings?

Is there no effective mechanisms available for achieving the same end? The Criminal Procedure Code, as it stands, incorporates a few provisions to which resort can be had for protecting the interest of the accused and saving him from unreasonable prolixity or laxity at the trial amounting to oppression. Section 309, dealing with power to postpone or adjourn proceedings, provides generally for every inquiry or trial, being proceeded with as expeditiously as possible, and in particular, when the examination of witnesses has once begun, the same to be continued from day to day until all the witnesses in attendance have been examined, unless the Court finds the adjournment of the same beyond the following day to be necessary for reasons to be recorded. Explanation-2 to Section 309 confers power on the Court to impose costs to be paid by the prosecution or the accused, in appropriate cases, and putting the parties on terms while granting an adjournment or postponing of proceedings. This power to impose costs is rarely exercised by the Courts. Section 258, in Chapter XX of Cr.P.C., on Trial of Summons- cases, empowers the Magistrate trying summons cases instituted otherwise than upon complaint, for reasons to be recorded by him, to stop the proceedings at any stage without pronouncing any judgment and where such stoppage of proceedings is made after the evidence of the principal witnesses has been recorded, to pronounce a judgment of acquittal, and in any other case, release the accused, having effect of discharge. This provision is almost never used by the Courts. In appropriate cases, inherent power of the High Court, under Section 482 can be invoked to make such orders, as may be necessary, to give effect to any order under the Code of Criminal Procedure or to prevent abuse of the process of any Court, or otherwise, to secure the ends of justice. The power is wide and, if judiciously and consciously exercised, can take care of almost all the situations where interference by the High Court becomes necessary on account of delay in proceedings or for any other reason amounting to oppression or harassment in any trial, inquiry or proceedings. In appropriate cases, the High Courts have exercised their jurisdiction under Section 482 of Cr.P.C. for quashing of first information report and investigation, and terminating criminal proceedings if the case of abuse of process of law was clearly made out. Such power can certainly be exercised on a case being made out of breach of fundamental right conferred by Article 21 of the Constitution.

Courts can’t legislate to provide limitation:

Bars of limitation, judicially engrafted, are, no doubt, meant to provide a solution to the aforementioned problems. But a solution of this nature gives rise to greater problems like scuttling a trial without adjudication, stultifying access to justice and giving easy exit from the portals of justice. Such general remedial measures cannot be said to be apt solutions. For two reasons we hold such bars of limitation uncalled for and impermissible : first, because it tantamounts to impermissible legislation an activity beyond the power which the Constitution confers on judiciary, and secondly, because such bars of limitation fly in the face of law laid down by Constitution Bench in A.R. Antulay’s case and, therefore, run counter to the doctrine of precedents and their binding efficacy.

Prescribing periods of limitation at the end of which the trial court would be obliged to terminate the proceedings and necessarily acquit or discharge the accused, and further, making such directions applicable to all the cases in the present and for the future amounts to legislation, which, in our opinion, cannot be done by judicial directives and within the arena of the judicial law-making power available to constitutional courts, howsoever liberally we may interpret Articles 32, 21, 141 and 142 of the Constitution. The dividing line is fine but perceptible. Courts can declare the law, they can interpret the law, they can remove obvious lacunae and fill the gaps but they cannot entrench upon in the field of legislation properly meant for the legislature. Binding directions can be issued for enforcing the law and appropriate directions may issue, including laying down of time limits or chalking out a calendar for proceedings to follow, to redeem the injustice done or for taking care of rights violated, in a given case or set of cases, depending on facts brought to the notice of Court. This is permissible for judiciary to do. But it may not, like legislature, enact a provision akin to or on the lines of Chapter XXXVI of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973.

The other reason why the bars of limitation enacted in Common Cause (I), Common Cause (II) and Raj Deo Sharma (I) and Raj Deo Sharma (II) cannot be sustained is that these decisions though two or three-judge Bench decisions run counter to that extent to the dictum of Constitution Bench in A.R. Antulay’s case and therefore cannot be said to be good law to the extent they are in breach of the doctrine of precedents.

Final word on speedy trial:

For all the foregoing reasons, we are of the opinion that in Common Cause case (I) (as modified in Common Cause (II) ) and Raj Deo Sharma (I) and (II), the Court could not have prescribed periods of limitation beyond which the trial of a criminal case or a criminal proceeding cannot continue and must mandatorily be closed followed by an order acquitting or discharging the accused. In conclusion we hold:-

(1) The dictum in A.R. Antulay’s case is correct and still holds the field.

(2) The propositions emerging from Article 21 of the Constitution and expounding the right to speedy trial laid down as guidelines in A.R. Antulay’s case, adequately take care of right to speedy trial. We uphold and re-affirm the said propositions.

(3) The guidelines laid down in A.R. Antulay’s case are not exhaustive but only illustrative. They are not intended to operate as hard and fast rules or to be applied like a strait-jacket formula. Their applicability would depend on the fact-situation of each case. It is difficult to foresee all situations and no generalization can be made.

(4) It is neither advisable, nor feasible, nor judicially permissible to draw or prescribe an outer limit for conclusion of all criminal proceedings. The time-limits or bars of limitation prescribed in the several directions made in Common Cause (I), Raj Deo Sharma (I) and Raj Deo Sharma (II) could not have been so prescribed or drawn and are not good law. The criminal courts are not obliged to terminate trial or criminal proceedings merely on account of lapse of time, as prescribed by the directions made in Common Cause Case (I), Raj Deo Sharma case (I) and (II). At the most the periods of time prescribed in those decisions can be taken by the courts seized of the trial or proceedings to act as reminders when they may be persuaded to apply their judicial mind to the facts and circumstances of the case before them and determine by taking into consideration the several relevant factors as pointed out in A.R. Antulay’s case and decide whether the trial or proceedings have become so inordinately delayed as to be called oppressive and unwarranted. Such time-limits cannot and will not by themselves be treated by any Court as a bar to further continuance of the trial or proceedings and as mandatorily obliging the court to terminate the same and acquit or discharge the accused.

(5) The Criminal Courts should exercise their available powers, such as those under Sections 309, 311 and 258 of Code of Criminal Procedure to effectuate the right to speedy trial. A watchful and diligent trial judge can prove to be better protector of such right than any guidelines. In appropriate cases jurisdiction of High Court under Section 482 of Cr.P.C. and Articles 226 and 227 of Constitution can be invoked seeking appropriate relief or suitable directions.

(6) This is an appropriate occasion to remind the Union of India and the State Governments of their constitutional obligation to strengthen the judiciary-quantitatively and qualitatively by providing requisite funds, manpower and infrastructure. We hope and trust that the Governments shall act.

(Source: P. Ramchandra Rao vs. State of Karnataka )



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