Thursday, December 7, 2023

Set up special bench to monitor criminal trials against lawmakers

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In a significant verdict aimed at fast-tracking trials in more than 5,000 criminal cases against lawmakers, the Supreme Court on Thursday directed high courts to set up a special bench to monitor cases for their speedy disposal, saying these cases have a “direct bearing on our political democracy”.
Issuing a slew of directions to high courts, district judges and special courts designated to hear matters related to lawmakers, the top court directed that criminal cases against members of Parliament, legislative assemblies and legislative councils be given priority and the trials be not adjourned in such matters except “for rare and compelling reasons”.
“These cases have a direct bearing on our political democracy. Hence, there is a compelling need to make every effort to ensure that these cases are taken up on priority and decided expeditiously.
“Confidence and trust of the constituency in their political representative, be it an MP or an MLA, is necessary for an interactive, efficient and effective functioning of a parliamentary democracy. However, such confidence is difficult to expect when figures, as indicated in the above referred table, loom large in our polity,” said a bench comprising Chief Justice D Y Chandrachud and justices P S Narasimha and Manoj Misra. There are as many as 5,175 cases pending as of November, 2022 against MPs and MLAs across the country.
“Of these, cases that are pending for more than 5 years are as many as 2,116, which figure is more than 40 per cent of such pendency. This is a large number,” the CJI said in the 15-page judgement.
“The learned Chief Justice of the High Court shall register a suo motu case titled as ‘In Re Designated Courts for MPs/MLAs’ to monitor early disposal of criminal cases pending against the members of Parliament and the legislative assemblies,” the judgement said.
The bench said that multiple local factors made it difficult for the top court to “frame uniform or standard guidelines for trial courts across the length and breadth of this country” and it left the issue of ensuring speedy trial to the high courts as they have the power of superintendence over the trial courts.
“Under Article 227 of the Constitution, the high courts are entrusted with the power of superintendence over the subordinate judiciary. We deem it appropriate to leave it to the high courts to evolve such a method or apply such measures that they deem expedient for an effective monitoring of the subject cases,” the bench said.
The suo motu (on its own) case may be heard by a special bench presided by the chief justice (of the high court) or judges assigned by him to the special bench that may list matters at regular intervals as felt necessary, it said.
“The high court may issue such orders in all directions as unnecessary for expeditious and effective disposal. The special bench may consider calling upon the advocate general or the public prosecutor to assist the court,” the bench directed.
It said that a high court may ask the principal district and sessions judge to bear the responsibility of allocating the subject cases to such court or courts, as is considered appropriate and effective.
“The high court may call upon the principal district and sessions judge to send reports at such intervals as it is considered expedient. The designated court shall give priority, one: to criminal cases against MPs and MLAs punishable with death or life imprisonment, then to the cases punishable with imprisonment for five years or more,” it said, adding that the special courts shall not adjourn the cases except “for rare and compelling reasons”.
The chief justice of a high court may list cases, in which orders of stay of trial have been passed, before the special bench to ensure that appropriate orders, including vacation of the stay orders, are passed to ensure commencement and conclusion of trial, the judgement said.
“The principal district and sessions judge shall ensure sufficient infrastructure facility for the designated courts and also enable it to adopt such technology as is expedient for effective and efficient functioning,” the top court said.
“The high court shall create an independent tab on the website providing district-wise information about the details of year of the filing, number of subject cases pending and the stage of proceedings. While monitoring the subject cases, the special bench may pass such orders or directions as are necessary for expeditious disposal, clarified the court,” the bench said.
The bench said there were no two views about the compelling need to take up and dispose of the subject cases expeditiously.
“We have no doubt in our mind that even the political representative, be it MP or an MLA, involved in the prosecution would also seek a quick disposal of these cases. However, the problem lies elsewhere. It seems systemic, perhaps institutional, and takes within its sweep many factors including the method of adversarial litigation that we have adopted. Yet, at every stage of the practice and procedure that we adopt, there is scope for reform. It is in this context that we have earnestly conducted and monitored this case for the last seven years,” the bench said.
While transferring the job of ensuring speedy disposal of matters against lawmakers to the high court, the bench noted there was “a considerable asymmetric disposition” between states and even between districts within a state” on factors that have a bearing on early disposal.
“This is evident from the stark difference that exists in the actual number of pending cases between States and even districts within States. There are also variations in the availability of judges to decide the cases, the caseload per judge, the speed at which the cases are decided, the state of physical and technological infrastructure, availability of prosecutors, etc..,” it said, adding that the high courts are more suited to deal.
Disposing of one of the aspects of the PIL relating to ensuring speedy trial of criminal cases against politicians, the bench kept the plea, filed by Ashwini Upadhyay through lawyer Ashwani Dubey, pending to deal with other aspects related to decriminalisation of polity in the country.
It hailed Upadhyay, amicus curiae and senior advocate Vijay Hansaria and lawyer Sneha Kalita for rendering valuable assistance in the hearing of the case.
Besides seeking early disposal of criminal cases against politicians, the petition has sought a life term ban on politicians upon conviction in criminal cases and setting up of special courts for this purpose in the country.
Upadhyay has also challenged the provisions of the Representation of Peoples Act which restrict the term of disqualification as the period of sentence plus six years after the release.

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