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Addressing Delays in Criminal Trials: Imtiyaz Ahmad v/s U.P

The present case discloses the need to reiterate that "access to justice" is vital for the rule of law, which by implication includes the right of access to an independent judiciary. The stay of investigation or trial for significant periods of time runs counter to the principle of rule of law, wherein the rights and aspirations of citizens are intertwined with expeditious conclusion of matters. It is further submitted that delay in conclusion of criminal matters signifies a restriction on the right of access to justice itself, thus amounting to a violation of the citizens' rights under the Constitution.

Brief Facts:
The present case in question raises significant national issues which concern the delayed adjudication of criminal cases due to stay orders by the high courts. The case involves appeals challenging multiple interlocutory orders passed by a learned Single Judge of the Allahabad High Court in Criminal Writ Petition No. 1786/2003. These orders, issued on various dates following the registration of an FIR, granted stays on investigation, framing of charges, or trial proceedings, resulting in a prolonged pendency of the matter before the High Court.

The writ petition, filed by respondent Nos. 2 and 3, was admitted on 9.4.2003, and subsequent orders extended the stay on the direction given by the Additional Chief Judicial Magistrate, Gautam Budh Nagar, to register a case against the respondents. As on the date of filing SLP, the writ petition had been kept pending for six years, highlighting the significant delay in adjudication.

Issues Raised:
The issue in the present case was the pendency of and delay in disposal of large numbers of serious criminal cases like murder, rape, kidnapping and dacoity for a number of years due to the grant of stay orders by the high courts in exercise of their powers under Article 226 of the constitution of India or Section 482 CrPC and/or Section 397 CrPC.

The relevant provisions which were referred in this case as follows:
  • The Constitution of India
    • Articles 136, 32, 142, 21, 14 and 226/227
  • The Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973
    • Sections 482 and/or 397
  • The Constitution of South Africa
    • Section 34
  • The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948
    • Article 8
  • The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, 2007
    • Article 47
  • The European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, 1950
    • Article 6
  • International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, 1966
    • Article 14(3)
  • Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, 1998
    • Article 67
  • Draft Principles on Freedom from Arbitrary Arrest and Detention
    • Article 16(2)
The Supreme Court was deeply concerned by the prolonged stays of criminal investigations and trials by various High Courts across India. Considering the gravity of the situation and the need for urgent action, the Court appointed Mr. Gopal Subramanium, then serving as the Solicitor General of India, to assist as an amicus curiae.

On 08-01-2010, the Supreme Court directed Registrars General of all the High Courts to provide a report detailing the number of pending cases where proceedings had been stayed at various stages like FIR registration, investigation, framing of charges, or trial under Art. 226 of the Constitution or Sections 482 and/or 397 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. The report was specifically requested for cases related to murder, rape, kidnapping, and dacoity.

Reports by Amicus Curiae
First Report of analysis of pendency of cases submitted by amicus curiae with assistance of Dr. Pronab Sen, Secretary and Dr. G.C. Manna, Deputy Director in the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, Second Report of analysis of pendency of cases submitted by amicus curiae with assistance of Dr. T.C.A. Anant (the current Secretary) and Dr. G.C. Manna, Deputy Director General in the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation.

The important findings from the analysis of the data by amicus curiae:
  1. Murder cases comprised 45% of all cases.
  2. Around 25% of cases were pending for 2-4 years, with 8% pending for 6 years or more.
  3. In many High Courts, cases have been pending for 1 to 4 years, with some outliers:
    • 34 out of 201 cases in the Patna High Court have been pending for 8 years or more.
    • 33 out of 653 cases in the Allahabad High Court have been pending for 8 years or more.

After reviewing the amicus curiae's first report, the Court ordered on 3-5-2010 for the counsel representing the Allahabad High Court to provide the total number of cases where Art. 226 or Sec. 482 has been used to stay criminal proceedings at the FIR, investigation or trial stage.

The second report analysed 10,527 cases, revealing that:
  • 9% of cases have surpassed twenty years since the stay order.
  • Approximately 21% of cases have exceeded ten years.
  • On average, cases have been pending for about 7.4 years.
  • Most stays occurred at the charge-sheet stage (32%), followed by 'appearance' and 'summons' (19% each), which collectively constitute the majority of stayed orders.
  • There were some other points made by Amicus curiae;
    • The fact-finding exercise directed by the Court uncovered a serious problem i.e., cases pending for decades due to High Court stay orders.
    • Efforts were made to address this issue through meetings involving NIC, Ministry of Statistics, Allahabad High Court, and the amicus curiae.
    • Undue delays violate the rule of law and deny citizens their fundamental right to access justice under Article 21 of the Constitution.
    • Access to justice extends beyond mere court access; it entails ensuring just and equitable legal outcomes.
    • Delayed judgments contribute to injustice and benefit those with greater resources, undermining the principle of equality before the law.

William H. Taft highlighted in the year 1908, that prompt judgment delivery is crucial to prevent prolonged litigation, which unfairly favours wealthier litigants.The amicus argued that ensuring access to courts is a fundamental right, urging the government to ensure speedy case disposal and maintain the rule of law.

Reference was made to Lord Woolf's report in England, emphasising the need for streamlining the justice system.

The amicus highlighted the burden of case pendency on judges, calling for adequate infrastructure and the establishment of a permanent commission to address the issue.

Order of the Court:
Certain directions are given to the High Courts for better maintenance of the rule of law and better administration of justice:

After considering the extensive pendency of cases and the Central Government's stance in its affidavit dated 18-1-2012, the Court issued the following directives. The Court emphasises that while High Courts have the authority to grant stays of investigation or trial, this power must be exercised sparingly and responsibly. Stays should only be granted to prevent abuse of the legal process and to serve the interests of justice. Therefore it is clear that:
  1. Such an extraordinary power has to be exercised with due caution and circumspection.
  2. Once such a power is exercised, the High Court should not lose sight of the case where it has exercised its extraordinary power of staying investigation and trial.
  3. The High Court should make it a point of finally disposing of such proceedings as early as possible but preferably within six months from the date the stay order is issued.

The Supreme Court said that this Court doesn't possess supervisory authority over High Courts akin to Article 227's oversight over District Courts, it still retains appellate and incidental powers. However, in its role as the final arbiter and in the interest of upholding public faith in the rule of law and the justice system, the Court issued the aforesaid guidelines to improve the administration of justice.

Certain directions are also given to the Law Commission which are as follows:
Since the Law Commission itself is seized with the problem and is making investigation having regard to its terms of reference specially Clause H thereof, this Court requests the Law Commission, which is headed by a distinguished retired Judge of this Court, to undertake an enquiry and submit its recommendation in relation to the following matters:
  1. Keeping in view that timely justice is an important facet to access to justice, the immediate measures that need to be taken by way of creation of additional courts and other allied matters (including a rational and scientific definition of "arrears" and delay, of which continued notice needs to be taken), to help in elimination of delays, speedy clearance of arrears and reduction in costs. It is trite to add that the qualitative component of justice must not be lowered or compromised; and
  2. Specific recommendations whenever considered necessary on the above aspects in relation to each State be made as a product of consultative processes involving the High Courts and other stakeholders, including the Bar.
  • In doing so, the Commission may take such assistance from the Central Government and the State Governments as it thinks fit and proper.
  • Accordingly, it is directed that on the Commission's request for assistance both the Central Government and the State Governments shall render all possible assistance to the Commission to enable it to discharge its functions, as directed by this Court in its order. The Commission shall at the discretion of its Chairman be free to co-opt for purposes of the enquiry to be undertaken by it, such legal and technical experts as may be considered necessary by it for an effective and early completion of the assignment hereby made.
  • The Commission is requested to submit its report within six months from the date of this order.
  • Such recommendations be sent to the Registrar General of this Court in sealed covers.
International references on Human right:
The Constitution of South Africa, under Section 34, enshrines the right to access courts. Internationally, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, emphasises Article 8, which guarantees the right to an effective remedy. Moreover, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, 2007, Article 47, and the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, 1950, Article 6, reinforce the right to a fair trial and access to justice. The International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, 1966, in Article 14(3), and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, 1998, in Article 67, further protect individuals against arbitrary arrest and detention. These legal instruments collectively underscore the principles of justice, fairness, and the protection of fundamental rights on both national and international levels.

The Supreme Court's directives to expedite criminal case adjudications and address prolonged delays due to high court stays are essential for maintaining the rule of law and ensuring access to justice. These measures, including guidelines for high courts and the involvement of the Law Commission, aim to reduce backlog and ensure timely justice, thereby upholding citizens' constitutional rights. The international references reinforce the importance of these reforms, reflecting global standards for fair trial and judicial efficiency. By implementing these directives, the judiciary can restore public trust and ensure a more equitable legal system.

In conclusion, the Supreme Court's directives underscore the critical need for expeditious disposal of criminal cases to uphold the rule of law and ensure access to justice. By issuing guidelines to High Courts and tasking the Law Commission with a comprehensive inquiry, the Court aims to streamline the justice system, reduce delays, and enhance public confidence in the judiciary. These measures, if implemented effectively, will serve to uphold the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution and promote a fair and equitable administration of justice.

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