Supreme Court Constitution Bench Judgments On Speedy Trial

In Abdul Rehman Antulay Vs. R S Nayak [ [1991) SUPP. 3 S. C.R. 325, 1991 (2) SCALE 1273 :: AIR 1992 SC 1701 :: (1992) 1 SCC 225 ] the Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court observed as follows:

1. Fair, just and reasonable procedure implicit in Article 21 of the Constitution creates a right in the accused to be tried speedily. Right to speedy trial is the right of the accused. The fact that a speedy trial is also in public interest or that it serves the societal interest also does not make it any-the-less the right of the accused. It is in the interest of all concerned that the guilt or innocence of the accused is determined as quickly as possible in the circumstances.

2. Right to Speedy Trial flowing from Article 21 encompasses all the stages, namely the stage of investigation, inquiry, trial, appeal, revision and re-trial. That is how this Court has understood this right and there is no reason to take a restricted view.

3. The concerns underlying the Right to speedy trial from the point of view of the accused are :

(a) the period of remand and pre-conviction detention should be as short as possible. In other words, the accused should not be subjected to unnecessary or unduly long incarceration prior to his conviction;

(b) the worry, anxiety, expense and disturbance to his vocation and peace, resulting from an unduly prolonged investigation, inquiry or trial should be minimal; and

(c) undue delay may well result in impairment of the ability of the accused to defend himself, whether on account of death, disappearance or non-availability of witnesses or otherwise.

4. At the same time, one cannot ignore the fact that it is usually the accused who is interested in delaying the proceedings. As is often pointed out, “delay is a known defence tactic”. Since the burden of proving the guilt of the accused lies upon the prosecution, delay ordinarily prejudices the prosecution. Non-availability of witnesses, disappearance of evidence by lapse of time really work against the interest of the prosecution. Of course, there may be cases where the prosecution, for whatever reason, also delays the proceedings. Therefore, in every case, where the right to speedy trial is alleged to have been infringed, the first question to be put and answered is -who is responsible for the delay ? Proceedings taken by either party in good faith, to vindicate their rights and interest, as perceived by them, cannot be treated as delaying tactics nor can the time taken in pursuing such proceedings be counted towards delay. It goes without saying that frivolous proceedings or proceedings taken merely for delaying the day of reckoning cannot be treated as proceedings taken in good faith. The mere fact that an application/ petition is admitted and an order of stay granted by a superior court is by itself no proof that the proceeding is not a frivolous. Very often these stays obtained on ex parte representation.

5. While determining whether undue delay has occurred (resulting in violation of Right to Speedy Trial) one must have regard to all the attendant circumstances, including nature of offence, number of accused and witnesses the work-load of the court concerned, prevailing local conditions and so on – what is called, the systematic delays. It is true that it is the obligation of the State to ensure a speedy trial and State includes judiciary as well, but a realistic and practical approach should be adopted in such matters instead of a pedantic one.

6. Each and every delay does not necessarily prejudice the accused. Some delays may indeed work to his advantage. As has been Observed by Powell, J. in Barker “it cannot be said how long a delay is too long in a system where justice is supposed to be swift but deliberate”. The same ideal has been stated by White, J. in U.S. v. Ewell, 1966(15) Law Ed 2d 627, in the following words : “the sixth amendment right to a speedy trial is necessarily relative, is consistent with delays, and has orderly expedition, rather than mere speed, as its essential ingredients; and whether delay in completing a prosecution amounts to an unconstitutional deprivation of rights depends upon all the circumstances.” However, inordinately long delay may be taken as presumptive proof of prejudice. In this context, the fact of incarceration of accused will also be a relevant fact. The prosecution should not be allowed to become a persecution. But when does the prosecution become persecution, again depends upon the facts of a given case.

7. We cannot recognize or give effect to, what is called the ‘demand’ rule. An accused cannot try himself; he is tried by the Court at the behest of the prosecution. Hence, an accused’s plea of denial of speedy trial cannot be defeated by saying that the accused did at no time demand a speedy trial. If in a given case, he did make such a demand and yet he was not tried speedily, it would be plus point in his favour, but the mere non-asking for a speedy trial cannot be put against the accused. Even in U.S.A., the relevance of demand rule has been substantially watered down in Barker and other succeeding cases.

8. Ultimately, the Court has to balance and weigh the several relevant factors – ‘balancing test’ or ‘balancing process’ – and determine in each case whether the right to speedy trial has been denied in a given case.

9. Ordinarily speaking, where the Court comes to the conclusion that Right to speedy trial of an accused has been infringed the charges or the conviction, as the case may be, shall be quashed. But this is not the only course open. The nature of the offence and other circumstances in a given case may be such that quashing of proceedings may not be in the interest of justice. In such a case, it is open to the court to make such other appropriate order -Including an order to conclude the trial within a fixed time where the trial is not concluded or reducing the sentence where the trial has concluded – as may be deemed just and equitable in the circumstances of the case.

10. It is neither advisable nor practicable to fix any time-limit for trial of offences. Any such rule is bound to be qualified one. Such rule cannot also be evolved merely to shift the burden of proving justification on to the shoulders of the prosecution. In every case of complaint of denial of Right to speedy trial, it is primarily for the prosecution to justify and explain the delay. At the same time, it is the duty of the Court to weigh all the circumstances of a given case before pronouncing upon the complaint. The Supreme Court of U. S.A. too has repeatedly refused to fix any such outer time limit in spite of the Sixth Amendment. Nor do we think that not fixing any such outer limit ineffectuates the guarantee of right to speedy trial.

11. An objection based on denial of Right to speedy trial and for relief on that account, should first be addressed to the High Court. Even if the High Court entertains such a plea, ordinarily it should not stay the proceedings, except in a case of grave and exceptional nature. Such proceedings in High Court, must, however, be disposed of on a priority basis.

In P. Ramachandra Rao vs State Of Karnataka, [ [2002] 3 S.C.R. 60 , 2002 (3) SCALE 497 :: AIR 2002 SC 1856 :: 2002 (2) KLT 189 :: (2002) 4 SCC 578 ] a seven judges bench of the Supreme Court affirmed the above judgment, and observed as follows:

(1) The dictum in A.R. Antulay’s case is correct and still holds the field.

(2) The propositions emerging from Article 21 of the Constitution and expounding the right to speedy trial laid down as guidelines in A.R. Antulay’s case, adequately take care of right to speedy trial. We uphold and re-affirm the said propositions.

(3) The guidelines laid down in A.R. Antulay’s case are not exhaustive but only illustrative. They are not intended to operate as hard and fast rules or to be applied like a strait-jacket formula. Their applicability would depend on the fact-situation of each case. It is difficult to foresee all situations and no generalization can be made.

(4) It is neither advisable, nor feasible, nor judicially permissible to draw or prescribe an outer limit for conclusion of all criminal proceedings. The time-limits or bars of limitation prescribed in the several directions made in Common Cause (I), Raj Deo Sharma (I) and Raj Deo Sharma (II) could not have been so prescribed or drawn and are not good law. The criminal courts are not obliged to terminate trial or criminal proceedings merely on account of lapse of time, as prescribed by the directions made in Common Cause Case (I), Raj Deo Sharma case (I) and (II). At the most the periods of time prescribed in those decisions can be taken by the courts seized of the trial or proceedings to act as reminders when they may be persuaded to apply their judicial mind to the facts and circumstances of the case before them and determine by taking into consideration the several relevant factors as pointed out in A.R. Antulay’s case and decide whether the trial or proceedings have become so inordinately delayed as to be called oppressive and unwarranted. Such time-limits cannot and will not by themselves be treated by any Court as a bar to further continuance of the trial or proceedings and as mandatorily obliging the court to terminate the same and acquit or discharge the accused.

(5) The Criminal Courts should exercise their available powers, such as those under Sections 309311 and 258 of Code of Criminal Procedure to effectuate the right to speedy trial. A watchful and diligent trial judge can prove to be better protector of such right than any guidelines. In appropriate cases jurisdiction of High Court under Section 482 of Cr.P.C. and Articles 226 and 227 of Constitution can be invoked seeking appropriate relief or suitable directions.

(6) This is an appropriate occasion to remind the Union of India and the State Governments of their constitutional obligation to strengthen the judiciary-quantitatively and qualitatively by providing requisite funds, manpower and infrastructure. We hope and trust that the Governments shall act.

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