Over 4,000 cases of murder, robbery and crimes against women were disposed of by courts last year after plea bargaining pacts between parties in violation of law passed by Parliament a decade ago.
The 2005 amendment to the criminal procedure law that introduced the principle of plea bargaining — whereby an offender can negotiate a compensation package with the victim — explicitly barred courts from letting the accused get away with a lighter sentence for heinous crimes punishable with more than seven years in jail and all crimes against women.
Statistics put out by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), however, indicate that courts did not let this condition imposed by Parliament stand in the way of plea bargains in many cases.
According to the NCRB, courts disposed of 27 cases of murder, 55 of attempt to murder, 40 of rape and 27 of robbery by plea bargaining.
In addition, plea bargaining was used to dispose of 3,584 cases of crimes against women. These included about 2,200 cases of cruelty by husband and his relatives and 1,045 of assault with intent to outrage the modesty of women.
Retired Delhi high court judge SN Dhingra was surprised at the NCRB finding. “We all know that plea bargaining is applicable only for offences which attract punishment for seven years or less. In all other cases, there can’t be any plea bargain,” Justice Dhingra told HT, wondering if it was a case of wrong reporting by the NCRB.
An NCRB official said there was no question of an error at the bureau’s level.
Parliament turned the plea bargaining concept inspired by the United States into law in 2005 to help liquidate mounting arrears of criminal cases in courts and ease congestion in jails. But some categories of crimes were kept out of its purview to ensure the rich and powerful did not abuse the provision to the detriment of the poor.
The plea bargaining law that came into force in 2006 allows a first-time offender to negotiate a compensation package with the victim. Once the court accepts the settlement, it can set the accused free on probation or prescribe a reduced sentence, depending on the offence.
If there are no victims, the prosecution and the court take the call, such as in the case of a young private sector executive caught for drunk driving in central Delhi earlier this month. When he was produced before a magistrate, she pointed out he would have his driving licence suspended for six months if eventually convicted or he could opt for a plea bargain. He took the second option.
Apart from anecdotal evidence, little was known till recently if the law had served the intended purpose of reducing arrears of criminal cases.
The NCRB, for the first time, put a number to it in its recent report. In all, nearly 35,000 crimes under the Indian penal code had been disposed of under this provision in 2014. This is just a little over 2% of the 1.3 million cases decided through the year. Madhya Pradesh topped the list with as many as 25,000 of them. In Delhi, this provision was invoked in barely 250 cases. Maharashtra’s figure was marginally higher at 331 cases.
A police officer conceded that plea bargaining hadn’t really taken off, possibly for lack of awareness.