The Supreme Court on Wednesday was constrained to emphasise that the expeditious disposal of a case must not be pursued at the cost of a burial of the cause of justice. As stated in an order passed by a Bench of Justices UU Lalit, Indu Malhotra and Krishna Murari,
“Expeditious disposal is undoubtedly required in criminal matters and that would naturally be part of guarantee of fair trial. However, the attempts to expedite the process should not be at the expense of the basic elements of fairness and the opportunity to the accused, on which postulates, the entire criminal administration of justice is founded. In the pursuit for expeditious disposal, the cause of justice must never be allowed to suffer or be sacrificed. What is paramount is the cause of justice and keeping the basic ingredients which secure that as a core idea and ideal, the process may be expedited, but fast tracking of process must never ever result in burying the cause of justice.
An appeal had been filed before the Court challenging the conviction and death sentence imposed on an appellant for alleged charges of kidnapping a minor, rape and murder. The appellant was arrested on February 4, 2013.
The trial court finished examining 13 prosecution witnesses in the case within 7 days, by February 26, 2013. On five dates thereafter, hearings were held, before a judgment was passed against the appellant on March 4, 2013. This conviction and sentence was thereafter upheld by the Madhya Pradesh High Court.
On further appeal, however, senior advocate Siddharth Luthra – who appeared for the appellant on behalf of the Supreme Court Legal Services Authority – highlighted various flaws in the conduct of the case that had unfairly prejudiced the accused/appellant.
Pertinently, Luthra argued that the advocate appointed by the legal services authority to represent the appellant-accused before the trial court was given little time to prepare fo the case or properly defend the accused. On this point, it was highlighted that the Amicus Curiae in the case was appointed on the same day the charges were framed, after an advocate appointed earlier by the legal services authority failed to turn up.
On an examination of the case records, the Court also took critical note that,
“In the present case, the Amicus Curiae, was appointed on 19.02.2013, and on the same date, the counsel was called upon to defend the accused at the stage of framing of charges. One can say with certainty that the Amicus Curiae did not have sufficient time to go through even the basic documents, nor the advantage of any discussion or interaction with the accused, and time to reflect over the matter. Thus, even before the Amicus Curiae could come to grips of the matter, the charges were framed.“
The Bench emphasised the right of hearing and the right to legal aid that is given to an accused cannot just be a routine affair. In the instant case, those rights stood denied to the accused/appellant, the Bench noted. Agreeing that the manner in which the trial court proceeded with the case was flawed, the Bench opined,
“… the Trial Court on its own, ought to have adjourned the matter for some time so that the Amicus Curiae could have had the advantage of sufficient time to prepare the matter. The approach adopted by the Trial Court, in our view, may have expedited the conduct of trial, but did not further the cause of justice. Not only were the charges framed the same day as stated above, but the trial itself was concluded within a fortnight thereafter. In the process, the assistance that the appellant was entitled to in the form of legal aid, could not be real and meaningful.”
This apart, the Court also found other glaring gaps in the manner in which the case was conducted – including the examination of 13 witnesses in seven days the examination of the accused even before the complete evidence was led by the prosecution, and not waiting for forensic reports before moving towards the verdict of the case. In view of the same, the Court set aside the conviction and sentence imposed on the appellant and ordered that trial in the matter be held afresh. The Bench added,
“All that we can say by way of caution is that in matters where death sentence could be one of the alternative punishments, the courts must be completely vigilant and see that full opportunity at every stage is afforded to the accused.“
Before concluding the order, the Court also issued certain guidelines concerning the appointment of Amicus Curiae in cases where it is likely that life imprisonment or death may be served as penalty, i.e.
[Read the Order]