Lawmakers facing criminal charges can no longer take advantage of protracted trial to continue in office as the Supreme Court on Monday set one-year deadline for completing the proceedings after framing of charges.
The order, aimed at cleaning up the political system, has the potential to bring to an abrupt end many political careers with the court having already ruled that an MP or an MLA convicted and sentenced to two years or more in jail be disqualified immediately. The disqualification continues for six years after the completion of sentence.
A bench headed by justice RM Lodha also said on Monday trial courts would have to explain to the chief justices of their high courts if proceedings are not completed within a year of framing charges, ordering day-to-day hearings in such cases. The chief justice can extend the period of trial if satisfied with the reason given by the trial judge.
A court frames charges once the charge sheet is submitted. After hearing the prosecution and the accused, it decides on the counts on which the accused is to be tried.
With proceedings pending for years, lawmakers continue to enjoy membership of the legislative bodies despite being charged with heinous offences, the court said.
"... in cases where MPs and MLAs are involved (in criminal cases) trial should get over soon. If somebody is innocent, let he or she be exonerated soon. You will yourself see a change in performance of the Parliament and assembly," the court said.
The order came on a public interest litigation filed by an NGO, Public Interest Foundation, that wanted politicians facing criminal charges barred from elections. The court will continue to hear the PIL.
With the conclusion of trial within a year of framing charges now mandatory, many prominent politicians will find themselves in a spot. Prominent among them are Tamil Nadu CM J Jayalalithaa, who is harbouring national ambitions, YSR Congress chief Jagan Mohan Reddy, eyeing a bigger role in Seemandhra in post-poll scenario once Telangana is officially notified, and BJP leader BS Yeddyurappa, who recently returned to the saffron party and is a candidate from Karnataka’s Shimoga seat. All of them are facing various charges of corruption.
In 10 years since 2004, 18% of the candidates contesting either national or state election have criminal cases pending against them. More than 5,000 candidates faced serious criminal charges and 1,187 of them went on to win elections during 2004-13, a law commission report submitted in the court said.
The court passed the order after taking note of the report that said the disqualification ruling had proved ineffective because of long delay in trials.