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The right of appeal itself would be illusory if not heard in timely manner: SC asks HCs for plan to dispose of long-pending criminal appeals

Shruti Mahajan

The Supreme Court has asked as many as six High Courts to file affidavits indicating their plan of action to reduce the pendency of criminal appeals that have been lying pending for a long period of time.

The affidavit as regards this plan of action is sought from High Courts of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Patna, Bombay and Orissa (Khursheed Ahmad vs State of Uttar Pradesh).

The Bench of Justices L Nageswara Rao and S Ravindra Bhat was hearing a petition filed by a person convicted under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) for the offence of murder.

The Court was informed by the counsel for the petitioner that the appeal against his conviction and sentencing has been pending before the Allahabad High Court. After the dismissal of his plea for suspension of his term, the petitioner had approached the Supreme Court.

The main point submitted by the petitioner before the Court was that he has already undergone three years in imprisonment and there appears "no likelihood" of his appeal being heard by the High Court "in near future".

This posed a bigger question before the Supreme Court concerning the large number of pending criminal appeals before High Courts.

Earlier, the Supreme Court had observed that the pendency of criminal appeals was a subject that needed to be addressed as a whole and that directions for expeditious disposal of these appeals cannot be passed by the Apex Court on a case to case basis as and when the accused approached the top court.

The Court took note of criminal appeals pending before the High Courts for over 30 years and noted that according to the National judicial data grid (NJDG), this number stood at a staggering 14,484.

The Court recorded,

"According to the available statistics from the website of the National Judicial Data Grid the total number of criminal appeals in such High Courts which have been pending for 30 years or more is 14,484. Criminal appeals which have been pending for over twenty years- and up-to thirty years are 33,045; criminal appeals which have been pending for over ten years, upto 20 years are 2,35,914"
Pendency of criminal appeals in 10 HCs as recorded by the Supreme Court based on data from the National Judicial Data Grid
Pendency of criminal appeals in 10 HCs as recorded by the Supreme Court based on data from the National Judicial Data Grid

In the face of this large number of pendencies, the Court has sought an affidavit from the High Courts of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Patna, Bombay and Orissa on their plan of action to reduce this pendency of criminal appeals.

Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Patna, Bombay and Orissa High Courts
Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Patna, Bombay and Orissa High Courts

In its June 15 order, the top Court said that these figures portray a grim picture and pose a challenge to the judicial system. Emphasizing on the importance of right to appeal and the need for its speedy disposal, the Court said,

"...right to speedy trial would also include the right to speedy disposal of appeals of those convicted. If such appeals are not taken up for hearing within a reasonable time, the right of appeal itself would be illusory, inasmuch as incarcerated convicts (who are denied bail) would have undergone a major part- if not whole of the period of their sentence."

It is in the interest of the convicts as well as that of the public at large that these appeals are disposed of in a time bound manner, the Court observed.

Therefore, the Court has sought to know from the seven High Courts how they intend to dispose of appeals pending for a long period of time expeditiously.

In addition to the data already available on the NJDG, the Court has asked the High Courts to coordinate with the Director General of Prisons in those States to collate data on prisoners awaiting the disposal of their appeals.

The State Legal Services should work with the DG of Prisons to draw up a suitable questionnaire to elicit information from prisoners in relation to the status of their appeal and the details of period of their incarceration and shall include, but not be limited to, questions pertaining to

  • appeal numbers, (of such convicts);

  • the provisions under which the prisoners have been convicted;

  • the period(s) of sentence undergone,

  • the age(s) and gender of the prisoner/convicts,

  • their health conditions (which of them are suffering from serious/ illnesses.

The details collected from these questionnaires shall be compared with the data available as regards pending appeals, the Court said.

Further, as regards the affidavit to be submitted by the High Courts to chalk out the plan of action to dispose of the appeals, the Supreme Court has outlined certain areas that need to be addressed by the High Courts, making it clear that the affidavit may go above and beyond these aspects while furnishing details and a plan,

The High Courts shall indicate, in their affidavits, the following:

  • Total number of convicts awaiting hearing of their appeals pending before them.

  • Segregation of single judge and Division Bench matters;

  • The number of cases wherein such old pending cases, bail has been granted;

  • Steps proposed to expedite hearing of appeals, including steps to prioritize hearing of cases of convicts in jail

  • Steps proposed to trace and ensure hearing of cases of those who were granted bail, and the timeline for starting hearings

  • Appropriate use of information technology, such as digitization of appeal records/paper books

  • Feasibility of creation of a dedicated pool of amicus curae who would assist the court in such old matters

  • Feasibility to creation of dedicated special benches for hearing and disposal of old cases or alternatively assigning a certain number of appeals to a large number of judges to be decided by them, regardless of which rosters they are assigned.

The State legal services and prison departments are to coordinate with the High Courts in compiling the relevant data, the Court has added further that the High Courts may indicate steps in addition to those mentioned above.

The Court has also granted liberty to the counsel for petitioner in the instant case to make suggestions. These suggestions, as well as the affidavits by the High Courts shall be filed five days prior to the next date of hearing which is fixed for July 29.

The petitioner in the case was represented by Senior Counsel Devadutt Kamat assisted by Advocate Rajesh Inamdar while the State of Uttar Pradesh was represented by Senior Counsel Aishwarya Bhati and Advocate Ardhendumauli Kumar Prasad. Centre was represented by Solicitor General Tushar Mehta.

Read Order:

Khursheed Ahmad vs State of Uttar Pradesh - 15.06.2020.pdf
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