With over 1.77 crore criminal cases pending in various courts across India, the Supreme Court has said that the Centre, States and all concerned authorities must take necessary steps immediately to enforce the right to speedy trial of an accused.
A Bench of Justice SB Sinha and Justice Dalveer Bhandari said this was necessary "to make the administration of criminal justice effective, vibrant and meaningful" and ensure that the constitutional right to speedy trial "does not remain only on papers or is a mere formality".
The order assumes significance in view of the huge backlog of criminal cases in the country. According to figures released by the Supreme Court, there are over 1.70 crore criminal cases pending in 21 high courts and another 6,58,982 criminal cases pending at different stages of trial in hundreds of district courts across India. Further, 37,323 cases are pending in the Supreme Court but it is not clear how many of these are criminal ones.
The direction came on a criminal appeal filed by one Moti Lal Saraf, an SBI Manager, who was chargesheeted by the Jammu and Kashmir Police under the J&K Prevention of Corruption Act for allegedly taking a bribe of Rs 700 in 1980.
He was discharged by the High Court for want of proper sanction but the police chargesheeted him again on the same set of facts following his removal from service after a departmental inquiry. He went to the High Court against the second chargesheet, but his plea was dismissed in 2001. Saraf then moved the Supreme Court.
Noting that the prosecution in the last 26 years did not examine even a single witness, the apex court quashed the criminal proceedings against Saraf saying, "permitting the State to continue with the prosecution and trial any further would be total abuse of the process of law. It also took into account the fact there was no lapse on the part of the accused."
"Speedy trial is one of the facets of the fundamental right to life and liberty enshrined in Article 21 (of the Constitution) and the law must endure 'reasonable, just and fair' procedure which has a creative connotation," the Bench reiterated.
The court said that the right to speedy trial begins with the actual restraint imposed by arrest and consequent incarceration and continues at all stages—the stage of investigation, inquiry, trial, appeal and revision.
It said this is to avert any possible prejudice that may result from impermissible and avoidable delay from the time of commission of the offence till it consummates into a finality.
"It is the bounden duty of the court and the prosecution to prevent unreasonable delay. The purpose of right to speedy trial is intended to avoid oppression and prevent delay by imposing on the courts and on the prosecution an obligation to proceed with reasonable dispatch," the Bench observed.